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The Conservatives have turned universal suffrage into a contest for manipulation. Here’s what we must do.

To cure psuedo-democracy we must address recent abuses that disenfranchise the poor and sow seeds of discord.

Image: WikiCommons.

The UK Government has announced that it will celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act by establishing a National Democracy Week. Yet Conservative-led governments have, since 2010, repeatedly undermined democracy. For example, after the Electoral Commission warned the government in 2014 against being too hasty in bringing in a new untested voter registration system, they not only ignored the advice, but instead accelerated the process, and consequently, almost 2 million people dropped off the electoral register – comprising mainly those who were among the most disempowered in society, such as students, the poor and minority ethnic groups in inner cities. Furthermore, when the Electoral Commission advised all parties to abide by the agreed limits on spending on election campaign, the Conservative government changed the law and increased the limit by 23%, so it could outspend other parties in the 2015 elections. But their spending still ended up exceeding the raised limits. And they are not likely to be deterred from doing it again since they were fined a paltry £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for their transgression.

Now they want to ‘strengthen’ democracy by bringing in Voter ID requirements. Their inspiration for what can only be described as the wielding of sledgehammers to crack invisible nuts is clearly the US Republicans, who have for decades been devising new ways to stop groups more likely to vote for their opponents from voting at all. Research in the US has found that Republican Voter ID laws might have prevented up to 31 cases of voter fraud out of a billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014. The Brennan Center at New York University estimated that 11% of eligible voters in the US lack the kind of photo ID that are generally required by these laws, and ‘they are disproportionately black, Latino, low income, students and elderly voters.’

Pseudo-democracy is bad for our political health. The Government and its ‘post-truth’ wing (which dismisses even the government’s own experts as incapable of saying anything accurate) have brought democracy into disrepute. They have turned what was meant to give citizens equal power in guiding the pursuit of their common good, into a contest for manipulation. Those who spend what it takes to stir enough people to back them are the winners. This cannot go on.

Taking cohesion seriously

If we examine Conservative strategies since 2010, there is one constant thread that runs through them – namely, sowing divisions. Instead of supporting civic solidarity which is vital for democratic relations, there is a determination to split the public into conflicting groups that can be more easily manipulated. Diverse backgrounds and divergent opinions are seized on to project some as the ‘others’ to be frowned upon or ‘enemies’ to be despised. For all the talk about community cohesion, what happens in practice is more akin to divide and rule.

Of course, a preponderance towards cooperation may not always be easy to achieve. But the duty of a democratic government is to help stem provocations, resolve differences, and heal divisions. Yet the Conservative leadership has taken the opposite approach. Their political narrative, relentlessly promoted by the right-wing press (1), is designed to channel discontent towards the ‘others’ – ‘foreign’ people, Muslims, benefit claimants, disabled people, ‘shirkers’, workers on strike, etc.

Conflict resolution from around the world has shown that disagreement does not have to fuel antagonism. It could escalate into hate-filled breakdown of community relations if people in power deliberately fanned violent emotions. By contrast, sustained efforts to promote dialogues, experience-sharing, and the development of joint projects, have been proven to be effective in bringing people together. To support such efforts, citizens from an early age should be taught to learn, reflect on, and exchange ideas in an objective manner. Instead of promoting unbridgeable faith-based divisions through our education system, all schools should be made responsible for ensuring that every successive generation acquires a shared understanding of what coherent reasoning and evidential examination entail. This will involve the cultivation of the corresponding pedagogic skills for all teachers.

Restraining the freedom to lie

Admittedly, school education can only go so far in preparing citizens for assessing what merits their belief. The media can be highly influential in splitting a democratic public into groups of vulnerable scapegoats, and a ‘majority’ that feel entitled to blame those scapegoats. And once enough people are misled into embracing false promises and targeting imagined enemies, the subversion of democracy is complete.

We are often reminded of the media’s role in holding powerful politicians to account. But the media may also help politicians deceive the public and abuse their power. No country that takes the rule of law seriously (even the US is no exception) has ever refrained from setting and enforcing legal limits on irresponsible communication (2). Yet despite what the Leveson Inquiry has found, the Conservative Government has brushed aside its key recommendations on subjecting disputed press reports to an independent arbitrator, and scrapped the next stage of the inquiry planned for restraining the abuse of press power.

A thorough investigation of how the proclivity of the press to serve the political agenda favoured by their corporate owners is long overdue. Its findings must lead to enforceable actions. Indeed such an investigation should be extended to social media corporations, as their refusal to cooperate in disclosing undue interference with the EU referendum would confirm.

Redistributing power

Ultimately, what the social divisiveness promoted by the government helps to sustain is the growth of economic inequalities. Concentrated wealth in an elite few and deepening insecurity for the many means that the powerful minority can set the political agenda exclusively for their own ends. Instead of discovering their shared interest in backing those who will deliver reforms for the common good, large numbers of ordinary citizens are misdirected into blaming scapegoats and overlooking the real barriers to improvement.

Politicians who want to rescue democracy have to recognise that wealth and power inequalities in society must be radically reversed. The key priorities for them in government must include systematic redistribution to curb the excesses of the corporate elite and protect others through dependable public services, supplemented by a guaranteed basic income for all; ending relentless privatisation and deregulation, which have been handing too much power to unaccountable businesses; and long-term support for the development of worker cooperatives where the people who work there determine their own pay differentials. Without these steps, we would remain a long way from true democracy.

(1)   Lord Justice Leveson, who chaired the public enquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British Press, found that “discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers” was the norm with many parts of the press (in short, the pro-Conservative papers). Source: Electronic Immigration Network (2012): https://www.ein.org.uk/news/leveson-report-finds-sensational-or-unbalanced-reporting-relation-immigrants-and-asylum-seekers

(2)   Any that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptably vile in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security.

About the author

Henry Tam is a specialist in democratic development. He has been University of Cambridge’s Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, and Head of Civil Renewal with the last Labour Government in the UK. His new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, sets out 40 recommendations for reviving democratic governance, and is available from Policy Press.


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