Is Democracy Dead or Merely Dying?

As I have gone around the World representing the UK over the past few years I have been very aware of the respect that so many people have for our institutions and particularly for the strong roots of democracy that underpin so much of what we do. “We have democracy in our heads you have it in your hearts”, I have been told on countless occasions in countless ways. I have taken great pride in that and until comparatively recently thought that it was true.
But the more I think about it now the more I think we are entering into a post democratic age and I haven’t got a clue what democracy will be replaced with.

Take the last elections in Liverpool. A joint European Parliament and City Council election. Much was being discussed that was important and together with all the publicity and all the effort we managed to persuade just 30% of the people of Liverpool to vote and it wasn’t much better anywhere else. It wasn’t that people were hostile to us or the process but that increasingly they do not see the relevance of anything that we do and perhaps more important they do not see how their vote individually or collectively can change things.

Are they right to be cynical – probably. The Prime Minister of the UK does not have as much power as the President of Apple. Put Apple with Facebook, Google and the panoply of IT specialists and providers and you see where the true power really lies. It is true that they do not command “legions” but they can command and change loyalties in a way that captains of industry and the Titans of the press could only have lusted for 15 Years ago and more.
So who should we blame for the decline in democracy because perhaps if we understood that we could seek remedies? Whilst we could seek some people to lash out at, and I will do a bit of that shortly, I think it is far more complex than playing a blame game. As we have got wealthier we have got more selfish. In times past community and families were important because we needed each other. Now we are all consumers and expect services rather than request or hope for them. As society we have largely broken the concept of family. In the past most of us had aunties and uncles and cousins down the street or round the corner. In fact any friend of our parents was an Aunty and Uncle. When any of the family needed help the tribe gathered round and did what they could. Now we expect the Government to provide.

As communications have improved new ways have opened up to get involved. Hacked off with what the council is doing? You don’t need to vote you can express your anger in 140 characters on Twitter. Hear something you don’t like? Start up a Facebook page and campaign hard whether what you heard is true or not. That’s far more satisfying than voting or campaigning. Your anger can be vented in milliseconds through the ether and kindred souls can be connected with world-wide at the push of a button.
Part of this cynicism is engendered by politicians of all Parties including my own who have replaced campaigning and community endeavour with a marketing based approach. Of course it is true that political parties have always been organisations with two products – its people and its policies. But now too often we campaign on what the focus groups says people expect of us and not what we think we should be saying. Too often we create candidates as if we were sculpting statues from granite. “Where are the conviction politicians”, people ask and it’s hard to give a convincing response!

Increasingly we target our actions so closely concentrating on the swing voters in swing constituencies that for most of the population there is no more than a cursory attempt to them fully in the democratic process. Of all the electors in the Country perhaps we will all fight for the allegiance of some 1.5 million people in just 100 constituencies. It is the swing voters who will be inundated with papers whilst the rest will be ignored. These patterns ae repeated in local elections making the whole process remoter and remoter.

We add to that with a less than honest discourse about some of the key issues which the Country is facing. Let me give you just two of these:
The problems being created by an ageing society. We all know that we are living longer and that means increased costs for housing pensions and the health service. The current system will not cope with the changes and therefore needs massive amendment (again I have blogged on this). We need all Parties to be honest about this and get together to look at solutions. That does not mean that we will all have the same ideas for the solutions but surely would mean that we could come to an agreement about a way forward in which all our ideas might be satisfied.

The Country is still in a serious financial position. Let’s ignore the blame game about whose fault this is. The facts are that the Country is heavily indebted and was spending on services at a rate of 50% of GDP whilst only taxing at the rate of 42% of GDP. That created an unsustainable gap. We all know that however had taken power in May 2010 would have created massive cuts. We know that all calculations about repayment of debts and timescales were blown out of the water by the Eurozone crisis. Can’t we be grown up and honest about this and together work on solutions which will enable better growth and investment and a better consideration of how to run services in straitened financial times.

Journalism is in remorseless decline. 30 years ago the quality newspapers would devote a page (a broadsheet page that is) to parliamentary proceedings. Now the best many offer is a facetious piece from the ‘lobby correspondent’ and the cartoon. What gets reported the most? The most irrelevant and useless part of parliamentary proceedings – Prime Minister’s Questions – where a testosterone charged mass hurl pre-ordained questions at each other amidst much howling and baying.

To be fair to journalists they must find it difficult to compete when everyone can set up their own blog (just like me!) and speak with great conviction with a faux knowledge often based on prejudice (occasionally like me!)
And what about the Great British Public. The problem with many of our citizens is that they simply do not recognise that term. As I put in a recent blog they think of themselves as mere consumers of services but unlike other ‘purchases’ they make they do not have a realistic assessment of what they can have for their money. As someone wiser than me has said, “They go to Scandinavia and see high quality and generally available services and want them; they then go to America and see low taxes and want those too”. Often the two positions are in opposition to each other. Every politician knows that they get hundreds of comments that, “you need to spend more on….”. Unfortunately very few people then turn round and say, “and we should stop spending money on …..” the only exception to this being their view than politicians get paid far too much and a few who believe (correctly in my opinion) that we should not renew Trident.

But there are some glimmers of hope in that I can see strong signs that people still want to engage with civil society and do things but do not want to get tied in to our systems. On Sunday Erica and I walked along the Floyover which had been closed for the day for a Flyover Festival. So many people had put so much effort into making this work. The previous weekend we had visited a fund raiser for Allerton in Bloom and one for cancer research at a local allotments society. These showed us that large numbers of people still care for others. They showed us that large numbers of people still will commit their time; compassion and initiatives to make society work better for the good of all.

This blog is not giving you any solutions to this. I think I have some but by no means could claim to come with an earth shattering response to the problems that I have indicated. I am, however, looking to enter into a physical or virtual dialogue with other people who share my concerns. We only have two choices. We can either reinvigorate democracy or we can plan for its demise and replacement. Doing nothing is not an option. Will you join me in a debate?

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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1 Response to Is Democracy Dead or Merely Dying?

  1. John Brace says:

    I’d like to make some points. Parliamentary proceedings are televised and reported in Hansard. There is plenty of reporting of parliamentary proceedings outside the mainstream media.

    The newspapers may be in decline, but there’s the new media (both websites of newspapers, blogs and other forms) that have seen their circulation increase. People increasingly get their news from the TV, radio and internet. To give my own blog as an example, comparing this month to the same month last year has seen more than a doubling in readership.

    In just a few weeks, the regulations will come into effect allowing anyone to film meetings of their local council (and other local government bodies) without problems. Admittedly I don’t see anyone likely to come up with the local authority equivalent of Hansard, but just like the filming of the Houses of Parliament changed things, so could this.

    The truth of the matter is over the last few decades whereas the ratio of journalists to press officers/PR people was 1:1 now it’s more like 1:4 and some publications have taken to just going the safe route of writing mainly based on press releases.

    However you’re right, whenever there are economic problems, businesses cut back on advertising and the business model of the mainstream media is largely based on advertising.

    As to invigorating democracy, well maybe this side of the River Mersey it’s not going the way it is in Liverpool. Here we have MPs of two different parties and four political parties represented on the local Council. As to apathy, well that’s been caused as the political parties have for too long given up on large areas they deem to be “safe seats” and when one of their own is enthusiastic to try and make a difference to these places and “reinvigorate democracy” the response they get from their own party is “why bother?”

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