A shot of pure democracy
The Big Issue, October 2008
By Heather Brooke
I’ve just completed my absentee ballot for the US elections. It took two requests to receive it but I don’t think that had anything to do with me being a democrat in the state of Florida – famous for voting irregularities that helped put George W. Bush into the White House.
I look forward to receiving my American ballot. It’s a shot of pure democracy which I long for after the faux democracy of the UK. I’ve seen too many meaningless public consultations where the will of the people is ignored, and MPs put in position not by the people but a tiny faction of a party elite, to think much of English democracy. In the US, by contrast, I feel my vote counts. The presidential election is just a small part of this particular American ballot paper. Judges, sheriffs, public prosecutors and defenders, councillors and neighbourhood representatives are all up for the people’s vote, along with proposed amendments to the state constitution and the way property tax is calculated. Nor are all the positions party political. Judges are non-partisan and their position rarely contested but the people still have a choice:
Shall Judge Charles T. Wells of the Supreme Court be retained in office?
Two options – Yes or No.
Can you imagine an English judge or police chief being made to answer to the public like this? The very idea no doubt sends shivers of fear through their elitist bones. How vulgar! The great unwashed masses deciding the future of their betters. Unthinkable! This mentality abounds and it is not confined to any particular political party: Conservative paternalism is based on privilege, Labour’s on the belief that the State knows what’s best for us. It’s difficult to know which one is worse.
There is much rhetoric about English democracy but what is it in practice? Did any of us have a say in Peter Mandelson’s promotion to the House of Lords? Or the person chosen to head London’s Metropolitan Police? It’s true we do elect MPs but is our selection really a choice? More often it is simply a rubber-stamp. The real selection is done by a tiny number of unelected party officials in relative secrecy, there is not even a primary where all party members have a say.
Councillors are elected but an inverse ratio exists whereby the less power they have, the more councillors there are. Miami-Dade County manages to get by with just 13 Commissioners to represent a population of 2.4 million. They have the power to raise their own property taxes and spend that money as they wish. Tower Hamlets by contrast has a population of not even 200,000 yet it’s packed with 51 councillors who oversee a budget in which 80 per cent of the money comes from Whitehall and is already allocated. With so many councillors, no one person can ever be held accountable for poor decisions.
In the US property tax stays in the area where it is collected so people can see clearly what they are getting (or not) for their money. This is a great spur to the performance and efficiency of any council. This relationship doesn’t exist in the UK.
The solution to revitalizing democracy in the UK is simple: give people real power. Let councils keep the taxes they raise but shed the number of councillors and make them hold their meetings in public. Let all members of a party have a choice in the selection of parliamentary candidates. We need a constitution and a clearly defined document of rights. We need a mechanism to bring forth popular measures such as binding referendums.
No doubt those opposing this type of direct democracy would point to some of the more controversial American propositions to ban gay marriage or abortion, yet there are judicial checks in place to provide a degree of temperance to the will of the people.
What checks are in place to stop members of the British political elite bludgeoning us with their hare-brained decisions? From building the Millennium Dome and selling off then re-nationalising the London Underground, to the introduction and swift demise of school tests for kids – these are decisions that I would have wanted on my English ballot, and until I do, let’s not pretend this is a true democracy.
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