The UK elections and the crisis of democracy

As the 2015 elections approach the media continues to bombard Britain with the spectacular message: democracy is in action! Voting, though, is only one part of democracy, and is increasingly meaningless. 

Suman Gupta
4 May 2015

3 for 2, Coalition. Image: Rob Watling

The voice of the British public is due to be heard on 7 May 2015, and its intent should be reasonably clear by the end of the next day. News media are agog at this reconfirmation of “democracy in action”, churning out clichés about the “circus”, the “theatre”, the “drama” of elections - and yet, in this instance there is something distinctive even about the clichés. They seem hyperbolic. There is more than usual focalizing of leadership performances, in the sense of putting on a good or bad act rather than having done something ill or well. We have leaders of the public (it used to be servants) acting out their claims. 

Admittedly a particle of the faceless electorate such as I, with little more than the news and the usual propaganda material to go by, can always be misguided. But this particle, at any rate, feels more informed than necessary about trivia concerning certain fellow citizens with public-facing faces: about David Cameron’s burger-eating habits and smugness before deciding to save the union in eleven days; Ed Miliband’s photogenic charms and fan-base; Nick Clegg’s midlife crisis; Nicola Sturgeon’s penchant for counting her chickens before they are hatched; Nigel Farage’s colour-blind colour-coding; the bugs that get to Natalie Bennett when interviewed. 

I have watched them all holding forth in US-Presidential-election-style debates, and found the preparatory and backstage drama more entertaining than their performances. But they, unquestionably, performed themselves there, and have been doing so tirelessly since. Increasingly one feels, they feel, their publicists and the news media feel that these performances are democracy in action and will help reconfirm British democracy on 7/8 May; and that indeed elections in general are the apt synecdoche for democracy itself.

Democracy is not just about elections

To some extent, the 2015 UK elections have to protest their democratic significance because democracy in a substantive sense is expected to be pragmatically undermined immediately after.  There are, of course, the political parties behind the leaders. These elections will putatively decide which party’s policies should prevail in government. We voters, insofar as we can tear ourselves away from the leaders’ antics, have the manifestos to look at in this regard.

There are some little differences among these that might sway us one way or another. The Conservative manifesto says tough decisions to favour hard working citizens will be made, which involves rationalising public spending (by reducing benefit caps, etc.). The Labour manifesto says tough decisions to favour hard working citizens will be made, which involves rationalising public spending (by taxing the rich a tiny bit more, etc). 

Some of us might hone in on manifesto promises that concern us particularly. This electoral particle, for instance, notes plans for higher education. The Conservative manifesto (naturally) and the Lib Dem manifesto (wisely) don’t mention the tripling of university student fees in 2012 and burgeoning student debt; the Labour manifesto promises to reduce those fees by a third; the Green manifesto promises to do away with fees altogether and cancel student debts.

But while we serious voters are making these fine-tuned and well-informed judgements, there is something else coming at us through the news media apart from the leaders’ antics: our voice, which will only be heard on 7/8 May, is being persuasively anticipated through constant opinion-polling (I often wonder whether the influence of opinion-polling on actual polling shouldn’t be limited in some way). So we all know already that what’s coming up is a hung parliament, either a Labour-somebody coalition or a Conservative-somebody coalition, and since we know this it will probably be so.

Some closed-door horse-trading will begin after 8 May. The British public will be shut out then. Then all manifesto promises will cease to matter, the rationale of democratic decision-making will be shelved, and the leaders will get down to tough negotiations - making compromises and inventing policies that no one yet knows anything about. So, if David Cameron and Ed Miliband refuse to speak of their coalition plans that’s a way of keeping democracy in action in its place, before coming into their own as The Leaders. At present, they just have to perform their parts to confirm democracy on 7/8 May, before changing the script (recall election promises about university student fees before the 2010 elections). 

But what of civil society? 

It isn’t merely this practical conundrum that renders the democratic process suspect during the 2015 UK elections. These will undoubtedly be “free and fair” elections. But, as observed above, democracy is not only or even predominantly about elections: it is about democratic institutions and democratic civil society. In those respects the state of democracy in the UK looks distinctly dodgy at present. Perhaps the prospect of a hung parliament in these elections is merely a sign of misgivings among the demos; perhaps it makes sense to think of the 2015 UK elections as democracy in floundering and flickering action against a backdrop of democracy in crisis.     

It is big of David Cameron to say recently that he will make “the economy” a “central plank” of his party’s election campaign. In all the manifestos “the economy” appears as a creaking plank alongside other creaking planks -- healthcare (read “NHS on the waiting list”), education (don’t get me started), security and terrorism, benefits and pensions, immigration (always good for some merciless whipping before elections), the European Union, etc. 

It is evident to us voters that the metaphor of “the economy” as a “central plank” is meaningless: it is at present the only plank, and all the others are splinters broken out from or engrained within it. To package “the economy” as a thing-in-itself is a propaganda trick (designed to abuse the opposition or to congratulate oneself). The trick typically consists in reeling off a few statistically aggregated numbers that putatively indicate national growth and deficit reduction and employment figures and sector-by-sector public spending with little context by way of insulting the demos. 

It is useful to package “the economy” thus, because contemplating the political economy of the present is also a matter of contemplating the crisis of democracy around us - which is apt to breed a kind of cynicism about elections. The elephant in the room here, always in mind but only to be quickly put behind or shushed or whitewashed, is the financial crisis which was on everyone’s lips before the 2010 UK elections.

It has turned out that this financial crisis was not a glitch up there in 2007-2008 that was fixed by austerity measures, but that the austerity measures which followed and continue to be imposed and promised are a kind of permanent crisis, and that all this is embedded in a long crisis of democracy itself. Noticing this elephant makes us uncomfortable and sceptical; being persuaded not to notice it is comforting.

A couple of observations serve to sharpen this uneasily shared knowledge. 

Even in the big statistics that the news media cites at the margins before general elections there is some acknowledgement of this elephant’s amblings. So the left-of-centre Guardian on 26 April 2015 observes that “Britain’s billionaires have seen their net worth more than double since the recession, with the richest 1,000 families now controlling a total of £547bn.” This is part of a global trend, but the UK leads the way in growing inequality (see Guardian 14 October 2014). In the right-of-centre Telegraph of 27 April 2015 we have the predictable riposte, with the clever title “Why you should stop worrying and learn to love inequality” (was the author aware of the irony of its allusion?). This wheeled out the old argument that super-rich people do those big measures of “the economy” good, and that means that others, even if demoted on the scale of wealth distribution, are still better off than before.

The same statistical indicators can be used selectively to make contrary cases. But the worry that deters love is not swept away by sophistry in reading statistics; it has a deeper cast than vague assertions about the better life and the good life. It has to do with the suspicion that wide inequalities skew democratic citizenship, confer on some people inordinate say in determining the life of the polity at the expense of others, allow some people unfair advantages in exploiting common resources to the detriment others. It is a suspicion that isn’t difficult to evidence, but this isn’t the place to do so – look for it and it’s prolifically there to be found.

From a different direction, and sticking with big statistical indicators: it is usually in the little leveraged figures that a wider prevalence of democratic deficit is suggested.  To take a small example, one may pause with interest on the Office for National Statistics figures for “UK Public Sector debt and borrowing 1975 to 2013”. This gives a condensed picture of the health and recent history of the British public sector. Relevantly: “Since 2001/02 public sector net debt has been increasing. At the end of March 2002 net debt was 30% of GDP. Over the next six years, up until 2007/08, the average rate of increase was just over 1% of GDP a year. From 2008 public sector net debt increased sharply, rising from 45% of GDP at the end of March 2009 to 74% of GDP at the end of March 2013.” A little note there records that government bailouts in 2007/8 have a role here, because of the bewildering movement of bailed-out banks between public and private sectors. It is a little indicator of a long-drawn story which all are aware of now.

The story has several steps.

(1) The UK government has worked hard to make itself smaller and smaller through relentless disinvestments and privatizations and deregulations since the 1970s.

(2) Moreover, the government has actively transferred public resources, first incrementally then on a gigantic scale to tide over the contradictions arising from the first step. Ergo, its own identity as representative of the “public” is suspect; it is better understood as a watchdog which guards and serves the private sector against the public by pretending that public and private interests are necessarily aligned. As these 2015 elections are held, the result of those bailouts is bluntly stated even on the National Audit Office’s website, in response to the question has the taxpayer been sufficiently paid for providing the support to UK banks?: “The income generated by fees and interest is less than would be expected from a normal market investment and has not compensated the taxpayer for the degree of risk accepted by taxpayers in providing the support. Once the opportunity cost and risks are factored in, the schemes have represented a transfer from taxpayers to the financial sector.”

(3) The government has squeezed and will continue to squeeze the public and drain its purse to sustain this situation in the name of repaying public debt.

(4) The richest people in the UK have become considerably richer as a result.

What does that mean for democracy in the UK?

The answers seem obvious:

(1) Where the government is constantly making itself smaller, the meaningfulness of elections as a mode of expressing democratic will and activating public interests is also correspondingly smaller;

(2) Where the government serves as watchdog for the private against the public, it is doubtful whether the institutions that are still labelled “public” can be sustained to serve democracy irrespective of the symbolic value of elections;

(3) The 2007/8 financial crisis has clarified yet again that the private sector is not designed to serve democracy -- is riven with corruption and greed at every level – and the UK government, involving every party that has been in it, since the 1970s has betrayed democracy by pretending otherwise. And will continue to do so. On the eve of the 2015 UK elections, this exercise seems far from being an apt synecdoche for democracy; it comes with the hollow ring of a protracted crisis of democracy. 

These observations still appear too abstract to most of us voters. And besides, what’s the case in the UK is also the case in other parts of Europe and indeed the world – so why demur before the joy of seeing British democracy in action in 2015? At the bottom of all the abstractions, nevertheless, there is the ground level and material experience of civil society caught up in this crisis of democracy – in the very grain of everyday life and habitual activities. There is afoot, from various corners of this and other countries, a great effort to slowly but systematically get to grips with this, by putting together small observations and experiences, talking about them, patiently making the links between micro-events and mega-phenomena, the passing moment and the lasting pattern.

At present, a few colleagues and I are trying to make a modest contribution to this great effort through a stringently funded and rigorously regulated collaborative project, gratefully pushing the brands of our institutions and funders while at it. We would be glad to hear from you on these matters, and discuss them in agreement or disagreement. Perhaps at the end of the great effort the contours of a programme for democratizing democracy will become faintly visible. In the meantime, on 7 May 2015 I will go and cast yet another negative vote.


Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData