Ballots are counted at during the Wakefield by-election (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Share the power

Why we need more direct democracy

Artillery Row

Over the next six weeks, 358 Conservative MPs and under 200,000 Party members will decide who will be the next prime minister. That’s under 0.5 per cent of the population and hardly a representative sample. The rest of us sit back and watch. 

The backdrop to this is widespread distrust from the English public: 76 per cent don’t trust MPs and 71 per cent don’t trust the UK Government. Wrapped up with this distrust is a sense that ordinary citizens no longer have a voice in political debates or decision-making. The leadership election will make matters worse, by moving power away from ordinary citizens and into the hands of an insulated political class.

Unsurprisingly, many have given up on politics. In fact, a recent poll has found the public has little knowledge of the Conservative candidates or what they stand for. Adding insult to injury, candidates are pitching to the party. Key issues like climate change, which was at the forefront when Conservatives were appealing to the public, have been conveniently dropped from the agenda and replaced with hot topics for Party members. “Tax, Tax, Tax!” seems to be the strategy. 

Consecutive leadership contests have blurred accountability lines

Who remembers the “green industrial revolution” promised in the 2019 manifesto? The aim was to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with plans of having “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. Feels like a distant memory. 

Fears are already rising over the potential abandonment of the “Tory green consensus”. It wouldn’t be the first time a manifesto pledge has been dropped. Rishi Sunak broke a manifesto pledge when he increased National Insurance contributions and corporation tax by 30 per cent. More recently, a report by the Institute for Government found 55 out of 287 pledges have yet to be tackled, and four have been abandoned altogether. A further fifteen — including Net Zero — were deemed to be “at risk of failure”. 

When prime ministers come and go without the public having a say, manifesto pledges start to feel like empty promises. The leadership election will continue to highlight the ways our parliamentary democracy seems unable to manage an increasingly volatile political climate, where voting patterns have become more erratic and national populism is on the rise. Mainstream parties need a new political settlement that includes citizens more directly in the decision-making process, to restore trust in political institutions and politicise those who feel voiceless. 

Within the last three years, we’ve had two sitting prime ministers resign mid-term triggering a leadership contest. Johnson took over after May resigned in 2019. He called a snap election to legitimise his mandate — a wise move if you ask me. These consecutive leadership contests have blurred accountability lines between citizens and representatives.

Will the next Prime Minister have a genuine democratic mandate to carry through policies? We can philosophise over what makes a democratic mandate “genuine”, but most would agree that the mandate of a prime minister who is directly elected by the public is stronger than one of a prime minister who is not. 

Mid-term leadership elections are also a nightmare for public relations. They look silly, and they certainly do not inspire confidence from the public. Colleagues who only recently stood side-by-side defending the indefensible, now stand face-to-face on televised debates that further polarise society. 

This is not an attack on the candidates. Parliamentary democracy encourages, some might even say requires, politicians to act in “hypocritical” ways. They must wear different masks, so to speak, depending on the audience of the day. Today they must pitch to the party, tomorrow to the public. Perhaps this is why so many people are disillusioned with politics, choosing to either abstain from voting or lend their support to populist parties which are reshaping the political landscape in many European countries. 

National populism has forced mainstream parties to shift to the political right and broach contentious topics like immigration. There are economic and cultural factors at work, but it’s crucial to recognise the role political systems play in contributing to the rise in populism. When swathes of the electorate feel their interests and values do not align with those offered by mainstream parties, figures like Farage and Trump have a certain appeal. They both pitched themselves as non-career politicians who shared resentment towards the liberal elites in Whitehall, Washington and the European Union.

We are not living in Classical Greece, nor 19th century England

It’s been suggested that we should only allow Conservative MPs (not party members) to vote in the leadership contest, to make the process more “democratic” by leaving the decision in the hands of elected representatives. This would only increase the sense of disillusionment and voicelessness, giving an even smaller sample of the population a greater share of power. We need to challenge narratives that pitch political elites against ordinary citizens by implementing more direct forms of democracy that encourage citizens to participate in politics more frequently. 

Direct democracy comes under fire for a couple of reasons. Plato’s critique of democracy as a system which inevitably regresses into “mob rule”, because it expects too much expertise from citizens, applies even more strenuously to direct democracy. We lose some of the foresight and wisdom that technocratic expertise offers by giving people more of a say in decision-making. 

Another concern is that implementing direct democracy in mass industrial societies would be costly and time-consuming. For logistical reasons, direct democracy works best in small city-states like ancient Athens or countries with small populations like Liechtenstein or Switzerland. 

People mistakenly treat this distinction as an either/or: either we are a purely direct or purely representative democracy. This is never the case. All political systems combine representative and direct mechanisms — the trick is finding a balance that best meets the demands of society at the time. We are not living in Classical Greece, nor are we living in the 19th century England of John Stuart Mill. Technology can now facilitate effective and cost-effective forms of direct democracy suitable for mass industrial societies. 

We are not lacking the resources; what’s missing is the political initiative to drive a direct democracy agenda forward. Once secure procedures which allow for rapid, widespread consultation are in place, the government could begin consulting the public more often on important issues, such as who will be the next Prime Minister. One way of doing this would be to give local governments the power and resources needed to conduct regular votes with constituents online. It wouldn’t take much to develop a secure voting app that could notify constituents of upcoming debates and allow them to vote virtually.

This app would need to be part of a wider strategy of consultation, aimed at increasing levels of trust and participation in politics. Regular polls and votes could be conducted through the app, allowing citizens a direct opportunity to contribute to decision-making. Not all these votes need to be binding — some could be used to gauge public sentiment around certain issues. We do not need to close the doors of Parliament either; the aim is to supplement our democracy, not uproot it and start from scratch.

It might sound fanciful, but this is hardly out of reach. The Conservative leadership content will fuel the revolt against liberal democracy by alienating the public and reinforcing populist narratives. We face a choice in how to respond to the crisis: sit back and watch as populist parties continue to gain ground or address the root cause of the problem by offering a new political settlement which puts power back into the hands of ordinary citizens.

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