The election is over and the dust has not yet settled on one of the most turbulent periods in British democratic history. In the General Election, the EU Referendum and the Snap Election we have all taken part in the democratic process though the results of all of these have left many disenfranchised.
Take for example the recent Snap Election; the Conservative Party received 42.4% of the popular vote with a turnout of 68.7% and received 318 seats, while the Labour party received 40% of the vote and 262 seats. The difference in vote share is not reflected in who gains power due to the First Past the Post system operated in the United Kingdom. In fact, if there were to be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition they would still fall 44 seats short of a majority despite having 5% more of the vote share. This brings into question the very nature of our democracy.
What do we even mean by ‘democracy’? Though the definition of the broad term means simply ‘A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives’ this is only the beginning of what it means to be a democratic state. There is no consensus on the best way to accomplish a truly inclusive political system and the varying methods of involvement globally and throughout history have lent themselves to much debate.
In order not to bore you with the details of the way in which the UK system operates I will simply say this; the voting system works by dividing the country up into constituencies, each of these constituencies is allowed to elect one Member of Parliament (MP) to take up one of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Once a party reaches the majority required to rule within the Commons their leader becomes Prime Minister and they construct their Cabinet from their MPs and Lords. Though in principle this appears to be a fair system, what it actually leads to is a large number of small boroughs having an undue influence on the national agenda. These ‘Swing Seats’ are traditionally where the election is won. The main issue here is that the first past the post system makes it impossible in many areas to have your voice or your concerns heard and has meant that there is a huge demographic of disenfranchised people who have become disengaged with the democratic process. A further example than that previously discussed was in the General Election of 2015 where the Conservative Party received 36% of the national vote and in return won 331 seats giving them a controlling majority, this is in stark contrast to far right party UKIP who drew 12.6% of the vote and received only one seat in the Commons. All of this equates to approximately 24% of all UK citizens eligible to vote giving their support to the party which eventually won power; a clearly ridiculous state to find a nation in.
In 2011 it was proposed to replace this system of democracy with the Alternative Vote (or AV) system whereby voters would rank their choices in order of preference thus allowing for a ‘run off’ style in close cases. This proposal was rejected overwhelmingly by the electorate, in no small part down to the public face of the Pro-AV campaign being Nick Clegg; former Liberal Democrat leader and coalition Deputy Prime Minister who was viewed as a liar by his opponents and a traitor by some supporters. In exceptional circumstances a referendum can be called in which a particular policy is put to the electorate and the majority decision wins, though this appears to be the fairest gauge of public opinion, often such polls are hijacked by narrow minded, single issue politicians and therefore the vote as a whole is devalued as those who took part are not aware or even often voting on the issue at hand (case and point the afore mentioned AV referendum and to a considerable extent the EU Referendum).
One of the systems of democracy most commonly called for amongst those on the left is Proportional Representation. In its purest form, this means that if you receive 10% of the vote you receive 10% of the seats and thus are able to be a government which is fully representative of society. This system is in operation in Israel (with a 3.5% vote cap meaning that any party who receives under this percentage will receive no seats) and in the second vote in Germany (this time with a 5% vote cap). This system is inherently more democratic but can mean that small fringe parties exert great influence upon the larger ones who require their coalition to obtain a majority; this can result in extreme parties being able to enact their objectives without popular mandate (as is seen with the Jewish Orthodox lobby in Israel). Though this is a negative point of proportionally representative democracy it should not be too concerning, particularly given the results of 2017 Snap Election whereby the DUP; a political party whose views belong more in 1317 than 2017 and who have only 10 seats are able to exert a huge amount of influence over British society at large. The point here is that regardless of democratic systems there is always opportunity for fringe extremists to exert influence, this comes from the inalienable right to free speech that comes from being in a democracy, I will move on to this topic later.
Ultimately Proportional Representation is the fairest of the elective democratic mechanisms as it ensures that each vote does count and has resulted in high voter turnout in nations where it is in operation. It also ensures that voting issues found in British Parliamentary Democracy are not present (i.e. in the UK it is pointless to vote Conservative in Sunderland or Labour in Uxbridge/South Ruislip as neither is ever going to achieve representation).
The system of stochocracy was proposed by Roger de Sizif in 1998 to replace systems of representative democracy. Under this system representatives would be selected from the electoral register via a lottery (much like jury service); this system was based on the so called ‘Athenian Solution’ – the government system first used in Ancient Greece whereby random citizens were selected to fill government and judicial offices for a fixed period thus ensuring that all views would be heard. In Athenian society liberties were enjoyed by all as no citizen was under the power of any other since all could be called up at any time. Again, this appears to be a positive solution though it has been argued that giving people with no notable expertise in matters of state control of said matters would and did result in poor decisions being made and mistakes causing societal tension. This is often termed as the first democracy.
Presidential democracy exists in many nations including but not limited to the United States of America, Brazil and Chile. The principle of this is that the people elect a President who acts as both Head of State and Head of Government. The advantages of this system are that the leader is in essence completely elected by the public meaning that they hold a majority mandate this enables speed and conclusive action. Due to their fixed term election the system also provides political stability; something which is often lacking in systems of proportional representation. However, within such systems there is a tendency toward authoritarianism and allied to this the lack of any real ability of the public to enact electoral change during terms of office. Though it is true that without this security of position it would be tremendously difficult to enact their elected mandate, the way in which the presidential system leans towards authoritarianism does mean that it is still not an ideal form of governance within a so called democratic society.
This is by no means an exhaustive summary of the different types of democracy however I hope that it has illustrated that the word ‘democracy’ is in fact extremely broad and does not incorporate many of the ideals that those in power, those seeking power and those without power state and hope that it does. There are many instances of multiple forms of democracy operating within the same society (again see Germany for further information) and this again changes the way in which votes cast impact the nation and a state’s place in the global community.
As Winston Churchill infamously declared ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’
In order to function as a democratic society we must guarantee freedom of speech, thought and inquiry. Though as previously discussed it is through this freedom that fringe extremist parties are able to obtain coverage and publicise their perspectives this is not something that should be clamped down on. Theresa May is proposing to limit this freedom and within a democracy this cannot happen. Even a democracy as fundamentally flawed as this one.
The world in which we live was built on ideas of free speech, free expression and individual rights. Inherent within these rights is the right to challenge any and all ideas and views. It is noteworthy however when it comes to criticism that it is acceptable to challenge ideas openly but not to attack the people who hold that particular view or opinion. This is the key distinction; people have rights, ideas do not. Whilst it may be upsetting to have one’s views challenged (be they political, spiritual, or any other kind of idea) if your conviction and basis for holding said view is strong enough then you will find greater comfort in it. You will know that the view you hold stands up to scrutiny and is a valid perspective, you may even be able to bring others to your cause. However the line must be drawn between a legitimate criticism of a position or view and a criticism of the person for holding that view. There was a time when we all misunderstood something or did not understand it at all and this feeling is one we must remember when challenging an idea. There is an appropriate way to deal with such instances.
It is only through challenging perspectives and preconceived ideas that we as a society make progress. Without challenging deeply held convictions we would not have voting equality, equal rights regardless of gender, race or sexuality, religious freedom, trades unions or democracy. However, in recent years ideas have become conflated in public discourse as being analogous with a group of people. For example, any criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is labelled as anti-Semitic and any criticism of immigration policy or the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe is labelled as either jingoism or racism. To label and demonize people based entirely on their view toward one particular topic is inherently wrong. Challenge the idea properly and there is no need to attack the person; if you argue well enough they will either change their view or find themselves unable to bring others into their misguided world.
It has become normal in recent years to speak of ‘safe spaces’ to see as a matter of course a wide variety of speakers being de-platformed because of their views or something that they may have said. If these speeches were taking place in public squares or deliberately provocative locations I could understand (not support) some objections but this is happening on University Campuses worldwide. That is a disgrace. Universities are supposed to be hotbeds of debate, inquiry and thought. It was in these places that some of the greatest speeches, most affecting rallies and tumultuous events in Western democratic history began or took place and now what? Students deciding that their offence at a speaker should prevent others from hearing the views on offer and deciding for themselves. The arrogance of it is maddening. Offence is not an argument. Some views are hate-filled, malicious and vile but silencing them does not make them go away. Instead they strengthen, they are given a perverse credibility, a silent martyrdom of thought. People read the news that XXX has been stopped from speaking, they wonder why, they go to the internet and read some of their statements, view some of their videos and begin to think that maybe they are right, maybe they were silenced because their ideas go against the prevailing opinion. Maybe you should join their cause? You end up in the echo chamber of that person’s world view. An example of this can be seen in both the Trump election and the Brexit vote. I am not saying that the views of these two were not valid to some people, but the way in which the media and many in the greater public attempted to silence their views using ‘offence’ as their prime argument gave a legitimacy to their perspective in the eyes of those already feeling disenfranchised by unfair electoral systems. Their views became a major counter-narrative to that on offer from the mainstream and they tapped into the well of those who felt powerless with simplistic and ultimately unviable solutions. The only way to tackle poisonous ideology is through rational debate, dissect it point by point, find the flaws and present a counter narrative. There is no such thing as a ‘safe space’, any view that you proclaim publicly is ripe for criticism and it does not matter if you feel offended by the criticism.
If someone disagrees with your perspective then challenge them, meet their challenges with well thought out reasoning. It is as Christopher Hitchens once wrote ‘Every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own actions because you deny yourself the right to hear something’.
We in the West look at countries like Iran, Pakistan and China and chastise them for not allowing free speech, for clamping down on people’s opinions and preventing them from speaking their minds. Whilst it is true that in these countries (and many more besides) the population is not able to speak openly or to challenge their government we are now getting to a point where our nations will soon be the same; silenced by those who see ‘offence’ as a real argument against change and who demand to have their views aired but not challenged.
The right to free speech is inalienable, it is inherent in what a grown up society should value and it pains me to see it eroded in the way it currently is. What also pains me is the way in which the Left has failed to stand up for this right and has (in similar vein to its position on Civil Liberties) left the fight to the Right who, for entirely different reasons, are actually trying to defend against these encroachments. For a Left winger such as myself this is deeply depressing particularly since without these rights there would be no Labour movement.
Without free speech there can be no democracy. Without free speech there can be no protests, there can be no challenge to authority. Without it we will see mass unrest and disenfranchisement. If you are not able to challenge a ruling, to have your say in society and to have your views listened to (and of course challenged) why would you have any respect for that society? Why should you respect a law or rule which has been dictated to you, forced upon you without your having any opportunity to object? Unless we protect this fundamental freedom we will be no better than the nations we criticise. Only through true freedom of expression, freedom of speech and challenging of ideas, views and policies can we hope to progress as a democratic, free and equal society.
In the UK we need democratic reform, there can be no doubt about this. The First Past the Post system is broken, reform must come so that the democracy we live in is more than just an allusion to the principle. As part of this reform we need to roll back the encroachment of silence on our free speech.
I just hope that it is not already too late to undo the damage.