I’ve been thinking rather a lot about democracy recently, which is odd as it’s something that one tends to take for granted rather than consider in any depth. However, just like London buses, suddenly three democratic prompts all came along at once. The first was in the form of a rather foolish “entertainer” who seemed to be calling for a revolution to overthrow democracy (as opposed to a revolution in order to create a democracy). The second was a chance encounter at a party with someone who, apropos of nothing, declared that they disliked democracy and were in favour of benign dictatorship. I, of course, took this as a challenge and immediately launched into a series of arguments along the lines of “…it may be benign to you, but to some poor bugger” and a paean in favour of the inalienable right to democracy when I realised that I was in danger of becoming boring and they weren’t really listening anyway. To be fair, I wasn’t intending to imply that democracy is perfect and was going to ever so gently demonstrate my learning by quoting Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.
In fact, I think that our form of government is not fit for purpose. We force 21st Century domestic and global issues into a broken Victorian party model, and then add in a system of representation across 650 differently-sized constituencies. Ideological and conscience differences are often conflated and then subjected to party whipping. And then there’s the issue of the second chamber, the Established Church, localisation, Europe, and the Punch & Judy nature of much political discourse… I could, and frequently do, go on. Suffice it to say that it seems to me that there is a need for a fundamental restructuring of our political system. But here’s the point: I believe that you only have the right to whinge if you participate. Opt out of voting and, in my view, you only have yourself to blame. It’s like the old joke of the man bewailing his poor fortune “O God, why can’t I win the lottery” to which God replies: “Meet me half way and buy a ticket.”
Which brings me to the third prompt. I’ve just been invited to join the advisory board of an organisation called Vote Match which is a project that encourages people to vote. (http://www.votematch.org.uk/). The biggest reason that people often give for not voting is that they haven’t got time. However, that apathy tends to hide an underlying issue which is that many people don’t vote because, in that much quoted phrase, they believe that they’re all the same. Vote Match shows that this is not the case. It takes real issues from party manifestos, works with the main parties themselves and, under the guidance of independent and highly-respected political scientists, creates a series of policy questions. This becomes an online app which people can take to see which party most closely represents their views. This, in turn, helps them see that there can be a real and discernible difference. (It was hugely effective at the last General Election with over a million users.)
Of course, this isn’t only about the political system. Many of our large corporations suffer from a similar lack of participation. In fact, with their command and control mindset and hierarchical structures they are, in a sense, the last bastions of feudalism. Shareholder democracy (another marvellous oxymoron) and employee engagement are seriously missing, and true transparency remains as elusive as ever. But it does take two to tango. For every person (both within businesses and in society at large) who rails against the system there are others, like the dictatorship-admirer, who are only too willing to outsource their lives to “leaders” to act on their behalf. I do believe that we need our politics and our businesses to be better suited to the needs of today’s citizens and that this does require changing them, both in structure, operations and in responsible attitudes. I also think that the best change always comes from within. Our institutions need to be refashioned but rather than stand on the touchline and criticise I believe that it is best to get involved, influence and build from the inside. Hopefully, the move towards greater accountability, transparency, and participation is the general direction of travel for our society. Although, as Dan Qualye marvellously put it: “I believe that we are on an irreversible trend towards more freedom and democracy – but that could change.”