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What do we mean when we talk about democracy?

Democracy is defined as

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Typically through elected representatives, but not always. In ancient Athens, democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens selected by lot to sit in the assembly, the same selection process we use now for juries, and in Switzerland referendums are a regular occurrence.

So when we talk about democracy, we need to clarify what kind of democracy it is we’re talking about.

For some, it’s direct democracy, the people voting on major issues like Brexit and the MPs just doing as they’re told, more civil servant than politician, and there are those who see democracy as representative democracy, the system we have where we elect representatives and ask them to use their best judgement to decide on the issues of the day, and we ask them to be honourable, to honour that best judgement, even when it goes against the view of post of their constituents. Representatives are not delegates. They are not required to vote according to the wishes of their constituents.

As 18th century Irish MP and philosopher Edmund Burke put it:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Since representative democracy is the system we have, it could be argued that it’s also the system we’ve chosen and is therefore, for us here in the UK, the most democratic system. If there was a desire to go the way of Switzerland, where they have loads of referendums, then any political party could put the necessary constitutional changes forward in their manifesto and the public could vote accordingly, though it’s worth mentioning that recently the Swiss government ordered the rerun of one of those referendums on account of the inaccurate information presented to citizens during the campaign, so under the Swiss model you have the government acting as referee, something our direct democracy advocates may or may not want to replicate.

The media is often regarded as an essential component of democracy. Whether you favour direct or representative democracy, the public have to be in a position to make an informed decision and in order to do that you need accurate information. However, that’s the case whether you’re voting in representatives or whether you’re voting in a referendum.

How about a drink?

There was a Brexit Party MEP on Question Time recently who kept accusing people of not being democrats because, in his view, they weren’t respecting the result of the 2016 referendum. This has become a common accusation. The argument over whether or not we should leave the European Union has moved on from whether it’s good or bad for the country to whether it’s what the country decided. The logic goes something like this:

Someone asks you if you’d like a drink, you say yes and (after a long delay as you watch them negotiating with the bar staff) they hand you a glass of sour milk. What’s this, you say, it smells disgusting. But you said you wanted a drink, they say. That’s a drink, so down the hatch!

Perhaps you should have realised the danger of saying yes to a drink when you don’t know what drink you’re going to get, and if you were promised the drink was going to be the most amazing cocktail you’ve ever tasted, with all the ingredients you like and none of the ingredients you don’t like, plus a little umbrella sticking out the top, you probably should have been a tad suspicious.

At least Brexit has got people talking about democracy. What do we mean when we talk about the will of the people? How do we measure it?

In the bar analogy, offering someone a drink but then not asking them what they want to drink would not be respecting the will of the person we’re asking. We know there are many different kinds of drinks. Suppose the bar has a range of drinks on offer, but the person who asked you whether you wanted a drink is now going to decide which drink to buy you? I don’t like sour milk, you protest, but they get a funnel and tip it down your neck.

Wouldn’t it have been a better reflection of your will if they’d asked you what kind of drink you wanted, or at least allowed you to turn down the drink they brought you? That’s what most of us would do in that situation. We wouldn’t just go up to the bar and order someone what we thought they’d want to drink, unless we happened to know them very well and their tastes are very predictable.

But there are practicalities when it comes to voting. You can easily ask someone what they want to drink, and if the bar doesn’t have what they want you can go back and ask them to pick something the bar does have, but you can’t keep having referendums asking people what they want the government to do at every stage of a process. Even if that were feasible with modern technology, allowing people to vote using an app on their phones, many of us wouldn’t want that level of involvement and turnout might be quite low. Some of us might be particularly engaged on some issues and would want a say on those, but on those issues where we have little expertise or interest we’ll abstain. I have neither the time nor the inclination to pore through draft legislation trying to figure out how it might operate and whether or not I should support it. I’d rather elect someone whose judgement I respect to do this job for me.

In the Green party, a party I was a member of until quite recently, there were votes on just about everything. Members on every committee in the party were elected, but if you bothered to vote in those elections you probably wouldn’t have known who you were voting for or against. All candidates would have their election statements, but they all sounded pretty much the same. Every candidate was a hard working and committed Green. As a result, turnout in these committee elections was extremely low. The only people who voted in them were those who knew someone who was standing, or members of factions in the party wanting to gain more power for their faction by voting in their faction’s candidates. You therefore ended up with a very factional set of committees and an executive that didn’t represent the membership as a whole very well at all.

In assessing the will of its people, a democracy needs to assess how much involvement people want to have in the running of their party or their country. Direct democracy with votes on just about everything would only be democratic in a society where the electorate has the time and the inclination to make those decisions. Most of us don’t. Being an MP is or should be a full time position. Being a member of the electorate can’t be, not yet, not until we’ve got robot slaves freeing us from having to work for a living.

Much of the debate around Brexit appears to stem from the idea that direct democracy is more democratic than representative democracy, that the result of the 2016 referendum should trump the views held by our elected representatives. Many people, including some of those elected representatives, believe that on this issue at least our representatives should behave more like delegates and vote according to the views of their constituents rather than use their judgement to vote for what they think is in the best interests of their constituents, but they may be making erroneous assumptions about what people’s views actually are.

If someone asks me if I want a drink, I may say well, that depends. What have they got? Similarly, my views on some questions may not fit into a simple yes/no or in/out binary.

Parliament vs. the people?

This phrase is being thrown about somewhat now, but what does it mean? Our parliament was elected by the people. The Commons was at least, and was elected by the people after the 2016 referendum. It’s true that most of those elected MPs stood on a manifesto that said it would honour the referendum result, but the parties had different interpretations of what that meant. For Labour, it was a Labour Brexit, if they won, and for the Tories it was a Tory Brexit. Labour didn’t win so has not been able to negotiate a Labour Brexit and there is therefore no obligation now on Labour MPs to deliver a Tory Brexit or a no deal Brexit. Similarly, had Labour won, there would have been no obligation on Tory MPs to vote for whatever deal Labour came back with.

If you believe direct democracy is more democratic than representative democracy then the idea of parliament vs. the people may make sense to you. This appears to be the view of many of those who argue that we should leave the EU because that was the instruction given by the public in the 2016 referendum. They may not have voted leave themselves and they may not think leaving the EU is a good idea, but they say we had a referendum and the government at the time promised to implement the result of that referendum so that’s what should happen.

How we should leave was not something that referendum asked though, and the sort of deal promised by the Leave campaign hasn’t materialised, so unless we have another referendum, how we leave will be left to parliament, and parliament hasn’t so far been able to agree on how we should leave. There’s only agreement on how we shouldn’t leave, though according to polls, the public are as split as their MPs.

But, if you believe direct democracy trumps representative democracy, shouldn’t how we leave also be put to the public in a referendum? It’s clearly a contentious issue. If Boris Johnson comes back from the EU with a new deal, should parliament alone decide whether or not to go for it or should it be put to the people?

You could have a referendum with three options: leave without a deal, leave with the agreed deal or remain in the EU under our existing arrangement. Running such a referendum under the Alternative Vote system, where people can give their first and second choices, you avoid the problem of split oppositions. The two options with the most first choice votes go into a runoff where they’re allocated the second choice votes of those who gave the eliminated option their first preference. Under such a system, remain could get the most first choice votes, but less than 50% of the total, so if the second preferences of the losing leave option go mostly to the other leave option then that leave option could win.

Given that the decision to leave was made by a referendum, it seems appropriate to decide how or whether we leave with another referendum, but we then need to decide whether referendums are a good way of making these kinds of decisions. We had a referendum on what kind of voting system we should use in parliamentary elections back in 2011, in which the turnout wasn’t that high and the winner was the existing first past the post system, though the only alternative was the Alternative Vote system so it’s hard to say whether that 2011 result indicated a general satisfaction with the existing system or a dissatisfaction with the alternative.

A recent YouGov poll found that about a third of us believe major decisions should be decided by referendums, another third think they should be decided by our elected representatives, with the remainder giving no view one way or the other. And unsurprisingly, Leavers are more likely to back referendums than Remainers. 

YouGov democracy poll

If they believe there is a public appetite for a change in our democracy, that’s something a political party could put forward in its manifesto, but up to now, proposed changes to our constitution haven’t attracted much interest. There are certainly ways our democracy could be reinvigorated, such as regional authorities, mayors, citizens’ assemblies or with a directly elected House of Lords, or, a House of Lords selected by lottery, as was the Boule of ancient Athens.

Whatever your preferences, how our democracy operates needs to be decided democratically. There does appear to be a dissatisfaction with it at present, so that’s a starting point, but we’ll probably find it easier to agree on what we don’t want than on what we do want. Even so, what we mean by democracy is something we should be actively discussing.

What does it mean to respect the result of the referendum? Dominic Cummings said

The MPs said we will have a referendum, we will respect the result and then they spent three years swerving all over the shop.

If the result was simply that Leave won and Remain lost then, since we haven’t left, you could say the result hasn’t been respected. But the vote to leave did not state how we should leave and that the result was 52% to 48%. Should respecting the result include respecting the closeness or non-specificity of the result? The fact that many who voted leave were voting for a quite particular version of leave, for whom a different version of leave would be entirely unacceptable and worse than remaining.

You could argue that they should have thought about that before voting. The government said they’d carry out the result of the referendum so if you voted leave you were trusting the government to carry out the result in a way that would be acceptable to you. If you suspected that they might not, you should have voted differently, or not voted at all.

There’s also the issue of how democratic that referendum actually was. Vote Leave was found guilty of breaking electoral law so does that mean the referendum should be declared null and void? If it had been legally binding, perhaps that’s what would have happened.

The referendum was not legally binding, merely “advisory,” according to a Supreme Court judgement in December 2016, so it can’t be ordered to be re-run by a court – any decision to have a fresh referendum would have to be made by the government and Parliament would have to pass a referendum act.

But instead, Parliament has decided to hold a general election under our First Past The Post voting system. If the Conservatives win a majority, we will leave the EU, though if they do win a majority it will almost certainly be with a minority of the votes. That’s the system we have though, and a system we effectively endorsed in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum. A government elected by 40% of the people has a mandate to do pretty much what it wants.