Renewing democracy: are we bovvered?

Meg Russell
19 October 2007

One must try to answer the question "Are we bovvered about renewing democracy?" on the basis of balanced evidence and analysis. Therefore the first place to look in answering this question is at what we say when we are asked - that is with the opinion polls. I'll start with the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust's State of the Nation Poll of 2006 (opens pdf). This found that:

  • 68% of people support a written constitution
  • 65% of people support a largely elected House of Lords
  • 60% of people support proportional representation for the House of Commons and
  • 77% of people support a Bill of Rights

Such findings suggest a clear demand for reform. So why are politicians doing nothing about it?

Of course, the full answer to the question also requires asking how important these issues are to people. A regular MORI poll asks "What is the most important issue facing Britain today?" It finds that:

  • The number of people choosing constitutional reform has been consistently below 1% since 1999
  • In last month's poll this was in contrast to 55% of people selecting crime and 26% of people prioritising the NHS

This is perhaps not surprising. But when MORI asks which issues people will take into account when voting, and allows them to select as many issues as they want, still only 4% in the most recent poll picked constitutional reform. This came below the 7% of people who selected animal welfare. Such results make it rather less surprising that the politicians do not prioritise constitutional reform. So on this analysis we are not really "bovvered" at all.

Things get more interesting when the polls present people with both sides of the question. My favourite was a Populus poll conducted last year for the Times newspaper which was on the topic of the House of Lords. This found that:

  • 72% believed that the Lords should be largely elected so that the second chamber has democratic legitimacy
  • But 75% of the same group say that the second chamber should be largely appointed because this provides independence from electoral politics and allows experts to sit in the upper chamber

We would doubtless see equivalent dilemmas in polls on proportional representation, the written constitution and so on.

I must emphasise that I don't think this demonstrates naivety on the part of the public but rather the real nature of such decisions. These are tough choices and there often are no simple right answers. And that fundamentally is the nature of politics. It's here - the kinds of problems that we ask politicians to solve - that I think we need to look first if we want to understand citizen disillusionment with democracy; that is, whether we're "bovvered" at all. Because the nature of democracy is about taking tough decisions, collectively as a society. It requires trade-offs, and not everyone can win all the time. It has to decide questions like:

  • How much to spend on policing vs. health
  • How the burden of paying for that choice should be divided
  • Where new power stations should be built
  • What kind of power stations they should be

And so on. On balance, most of us will personally lose out on these kinds of decisions at least some of the time. Indeed if we didn't, democracy would be failing - it would be biased to us at the cost of others.

But this kind of democratic politics is quite contrary to the wider culture in which we now live. We've become a wealthy consumer society, where we're constantly bombarded by advertising messages and other pressures, telling us to treat ourselves, buy what we want, strive to have it all. We're not actually very good at taking tough choices in this arena either - as shown by the scale of consumer debt. But the key thing is that it's a culture very much focussed on the individual and individual choice. This makes the fundamentally collective nature of political decision-making really quite alien. And this is particularly so, given the tendency that politicians have developed to play down the collective aspects of politics and treat voters more like consumers in a market where the parties are the product. Such an approach is of course doomed to fail - which I am hopeful is something that Gordon Brown has understood, as he is far more inclined than his predecessor to talk about big ideas and the need for collective solutions.

Returning to the polls I'd like to give you one last figure, taken from the British Election Study of 2005 - one of the biggest and most reliable polls of its kind. When asked "on the whole are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way democracy works in this country?", 66% of people said they were very or fairly satisfied. Given our consumer dominated culture, and that democracy by its nature can't deliver all we want, I find this figure encouraging - indeed even surprisingly high. It suggests that the British public have quite a robust and mature attitude to the democratic system.

To finish, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not opposed to reform. The Constitution Unit has welcomed most of Gordon Brown's recent proposals, and I'm about to publish a big report pressing for changes to the way the House of Commons is run (Moderator: this report has now been published here). But I do get concerned about the constant focus on reform - and particularly seeing it as a solution to democratic disengagement - for two reasons.

First, it can be a kind of displacement activity. By focussing on constitutional tinkering we risk not facing the bigger cultural forces which seem to me the root of disengagement. These forces are at work all over the developed world - including in countries with proportional representation, bills of rights and the rest and everywhere there is a worrying level of political disillusionment creeping in.

Second by consistently talking about failure - about the inadequacies of our political institutions and the need for change - we risk fuelling the very disillusionment we're seeking to address. Instead, if we want people to be more "bovvered" about politics there may be wider and more difficult cultural changes we need to bring about. But principally, as defenders of democracy, it's our job it point out the truth. It's not like shopping. It's imperfect, it's frustrating, we can't all win. But that's the nature of it, and it's the best system we've got.

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