Is our democracy a sham?

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It would be very easy to take at face-value the notion that Britain is a democracy, but democracy is formed by the whole population and our government is not. Leaving aside those not eligible to vote, such as members of the House of Lords and those under 18, increasingly large swathes of people choose not to vote at all and in many areas across the country they are in the majority. A vote by a minority does not constitute a democratic mandate.

The current government was elected in 2015 by a miserable 36.7% of the electorate. Even the great Tony Blair only achieved 43.2% in his “landslide” victory of 1997. Hardly overwhelming political endorsements, but the figures are decidedly worse than they look. As a percentage of all those who could have voted the current government achieved a meagre 24%. A system of government where only one in four electors support the ruling party is not a democracy – it is a sham.

Is this the best they can offer?

Raw numbers are only part of the problem, those areas with the lowest turnout are almost always the poorest and most deprived. A democracy in which particular segments of the community are disenfranchised by design or choice is clearly not one where there has been a genuine effort to engage. And if those who do vote are the wealthiest and most powerful, then we should not call such a system a democracy, it is a “plutocracy” – a government controlled by an elite: an elite offering a pretence of democracy. It is no defence to say that more people could have voted, because the evidence is clear – whichever party is in power those at the bottom remain condemned to suffer. Today that means the poorest healthcare, the least effective education, the most undesirable housing and the worst career opportunities. Is it any wonder that so many people don’t think it is worth voting?

An even bigger problem is that whilst we have just identified two discreet and important groups in the political system – the well-informed voting elite (let’s call them the political class) and the disengaged (who don’t vote), there is a third, much larger group, which creates the most serious problems of all. The uninformed voter.

The uninformed voter is the biggest obstacle to effective democracy because their votes deny its very purpose. Behind every well-informed and considered opinion, lurking in the murky shadows are the forces of ignorance, rumour and, too often, unfettered prejudice. As it is always easiest to pander to the lowest common denominator, it is inevitable that many do. Unscrupulous politicians and the muckraking tabloids do it every day. It is called “dog-whistle” politics.

The events of the last few months – the vote for Brexit, the resignation of David Cameron, more calls for Scottish independence and the divisions within Labour, have provided an unwelcome distraction from the search for democracy that should be our country’s first priority. The true role of a democratic government should be to change the political landscape so that more people get involved and to ensure that all votes are based on informed general knowledge of political reality. But in a plutocratic age such an ambition is not necessarily in the interests of our masters.