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Democracy? Yes!

Stuart Weir
13 July 2004

In the early months of 2004 researchers for the United Kingdom’s Electoral Commission interviewed panels of people drawn from various walks of life to measure “voter apathy” and attitudes towards political participation. They did not formally register one fascinating response: the people interviewed thanked them warmly for involving them in the survey and for taking their views seriously.

It is not easy to gauge how far people in Britain feel excluded from the political process, but the 2004 State of the Nation poll for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) provides some basic answers. The poll records that 90% of the public believe that “ordinary voters” should have a great deal or a fair amount of power over government policies, but only a third feel that they have such power. Two–thirds say they have a little or no power at all over their government.

Also in openDemocracy, authors examine the crisis of British politics and media after the Hutton report:

  • Douglas Murray, “Hutton – the wrong inquiry” (January 2004)
  • David Elstein, “Hutton and the BBC” (January 2004)
  • Anthony Barnett, “The Campbell Code” (January 2004)
  • David Marquand, “Tony Blair and Iraq: a public tragedy” (February 2004)
  • Tom Bentley, “Tall tales and home truths” (February 2004)
  • Godfrey Hodgson, “Tony Blair and America” (April 2004)

The political context of Tony Blair’s New Labour government makes these findings unsurprising. Britain is ruled by a powerful prime minister who has ignored popular opinion over access to official information, a wholly or mainly elected second chamber of parliament, and the disastrous war against Iraq.

But such political exclusion is not a recent phenomenon in the UK: in fact, it is built into the constitutional fabric of the country. The late Richard Crossman, an intellectual in the 1960s Labour cabinet, wrote in his diary that the British constitution (and thus the existence of parliamentary supremacy as opposed to popular sovereignty) was a “rock” against popular emotion:

“This is the strength of our system, that, in one sense we have plebiscitary democracy, actually the leadership is insulated from the masses by the existence of Parliament. Parliament is the buffer which enables our leadership to avoid saying yes or no to the electorate…”

The political class reinforce this rock by building around it a culture that confines its interest to political “realities” and closes its eyes to the pre–democratic nature of constitutional arrangements. Indeed, politicians, officials, lawyers and commentators often celebrate the “exceptional” qualities of these arrangements; the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was actually set up to export Britain’s democratic lore and practice to democratising nations abroad.

The people find a voice

From the 1970s onwards, reform–minded people began to besiege the rock in a number of campaigns. Their challenge gained a large new constituency in 1988 when Charter 88 was founded – on the tercentenary of the “Glorious Revolution“ – expressly to campaign publicly for a series of democratic reforms.

The groundswell of public opinion Charter 88 helped mobilise was so strong that the Labour party, led in opposition by the late John Smith after its 1992 election defeat, committed itself to a radical democratic agenda – including a Bill of Rights, devolution, freedom of information, limits on unchecked executive powers, and a referendum on the majoritarian “first–past–the–post” system used in British parliamentary elections.

Trevor Smith, chairman of the JRRT (which had funded the launch of Charter 88) decided in 1991 that the trust should monitor the progress that Charter 88 and other campaigns were making in convincing the wider public of the case for democratic changes. Thus the State of the Nation polls tracking public attitudes on democratic issues were born. The 2004 survey, for which ICM interviewed more than 2,000 people, is the sixth full–scale poll in the series (for its main findings, click here).

From the outset, those of us involved realised that the people were, so to speak, way ahead of the researchers. The accumulated evidence of thirteen years of polls shows that the public takes a notably principled stand on democratic questions. There have been consistent majorities over these years in favour of more democracy; and even after the New Labour government’s programme of reforms (less sweeping than John Smith’s), people want both more complete reforms than those which the government has enacted, and others in areas where the government has failed to act.

In general the researchers find that the British public is committed to the principles of accountable government, the rule of law and the separation of powers; to a renunciation of the informality of Britain’s old political arrangements; to the adoption of a written constitution and strong legal and formal scrutiny of executive conduct; to more popular participation in government decision–making; and to the proportional principle in elections.

In particular, the polls show:

  • Long–term and growing support for a written constitution (up to 80% in favour in 2004)
  • A strong and long–established, if diffuse, dissatisfaction with the “present system of governing Britain” (in 2004, nearly two–thirds said that it needed “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of improvement)
  • A resolute popular desire for a wholly or mostly elected chamber: in 2004, this is the choice of 66% of respondents, as against 12% who back Tony Blair’s determination to have a largely appointed chamber (22% were “undecided”)
  • Four–to–one majorities in favour of proportional representation in elections to parliament and local councils (in 2004, people also agreed that local communities should be free to adopt their own electoral systems)
  • Overwhelming support for a Bill of Rights that protects economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights; and a belief that social justice is an important element in democracy
  • More far–reaching proposals for freedom of information than the government’s recent act allows for
  • Big majorities for a referendum on electoral reform for elections to parliament, for fixed–term parliamentary elections, for decentralising powers, for more accountable government agencies (i.e., quangos)
  • A strong desire for greater popular control over government policy–making.

A time for trust

In 2004, we asked for people’s views on other democratic questions. We found that a large majority (62%–27%) agreed that the state should fund political parties with “significant public support” to reduce their dependence on donations from rich people, businesses and trade unions. People in general were convinced of the risk that donations could buy undesirable influence over parties.

More innovatively, a majority also endorsed the idea that some members of the boards of local and national quangos, or government agencies or services, should be chosen by drawing lots. The government recently rejected a proposal for experiments in the use of lot in selecting quango members from the Public Administration Select Committee to begin democratising this appointed sphere of governance.

It is in civil society that the great strength of democracy in Britain lies. The Rowntree polls demonstrate that citizens active in a wealth of institutions – voluntary societies; trade unions; tenants and trade associations; non–governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Child Poverty Action Group, Christian Aid, the Countryside Alliance, Liberty, Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and a host of protest, sports and community groups – draw much of their strength from a public who routinely display a normative sense of the importance of principles of democracy and social justice in British political life.

Of course, as the closing line of Billy Wilder’s Some like It Hot famously acknowledged, nobody’s perfect. Thus we found, for example, that while the public agree on the importance of formal civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair trial, they are also ready to approve the incarceration without trial of foreign terrorist suspects; and they are equivocal about proposals for lowering the standard of proof required for conviction in terrorism cases, trying suspects at least partly in private, and preventing them from hearing some evidence against them.

The political class tends to reject the consistent findings of the Rowntree and similar polls, on the grounds that democratic issues may well command high levels of support in street or telephone interviews, but they do not have “salience” in the public mind or inspire debate in the local pub or café. Psephologists argue that poll questions often determine the responses and reveal contradictory and confused responses (though presumably not to their own questions); politicians complain that such concerns do not show up in their focus groups (though it is they who set the agendas).

We are convinced of the validity of the findings. Since 1991, the polls have employed “citizen–oriented” rather than “institutional” questions. We have followed the famous precept of old–fashioned popular journalism – never underestimate the ignorance of the people, nor their intelligence. So we set our questions in a context without making them leading questions, and we control for contradictory views.

We believe that the polls have revealed a strong normative framework within which a reform–minded government that wishes to improve popular trust and participation in British government could debate the principles, practicalities and contradictions necessary to create a system in which the people could have confidence. As yet, we do not have a government or political class that trusts the people enough.

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