Is Representative Democracy failing us?

Matthew Flinders on Democratic Audit (2 July 2014) ponders What is the problem with democracy?

Could it be that we need to give those politicians we elect just a little more leeway and ‘space’ in order to allow them to focus on delivering their promises? Could it be that politicians have become too sensitive to the immediate demands of the loudest sectional groups or the latest focus group or what’s trending on twitter?

I think we also need to get our minds back round what we mean by a “representative democracy” and whether it is still working (at least sufficiently for us to want to continue with it).

The essence of “representative democracy” is that we elect people who then “represent us”. This has to happen at both the individual and the collective level – but we need to keep the two “levels” separate.

The individual representation takes place when for instance we individually feel oppressed by the state and we want someone to be held to account. For instance we want our MP to ask the Home Secretary why our passport application has been delayed for three months.

The collective representation takes place when our representatives as a group attempt to represent us “as a body”. I think this is where we are seeing many problems that lead to disillusion.

Modern communication enables us to more easily individually approach our representatives about matters that should be collective (e.g. a policy issue) and we incorrectly expect a similar response to an approach for individual representation.

Such communication (amplified by 24 hour news and other media) also make us expect “our representative” to be “more responsive” – the corollary of which is that we expect them to use less personal judgement. We are trying to change them into mandated delegates.

Was it the case not so many decades ago, that we elected parliaments and then to a much greater extent left them to “get on with it” – which surely is the expected consequence of a “representative democracy”.

Our current (Westminster) representative democracy does not seem to be working for a number of reasons.

If we move away from our current “representative democracy” we tend to move towards the hyper-democracy that the author postulates where:

  • We elect the dog-catcher, the crime commissioner and the sickness commissioner, etc. leading to a fragmentation of policy.
  • Those with the largest share of voice get heard (locally that being those who are articulate with the time to get involved, nationally it being the think tanks and lobbying groups)
  • We move to more “Swiss style” referenda – because of course crowd-souring a view from a mixture of the disengaged, those who only read one newspaper, assorted bigots, and an apathetic majority should come to better decisions than those elected to represent us and deliberate on such matters full-time.

My gut feel is that we have to find a way to reform our current representative democracy such that we can trust the representative bodies to get on with the job.

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