With the unstoppable rise of populism and the effects of technologilisation, is it any wonder that British democracy is being called into disrepute?
The political earthquakes of the past five years have shone a light onto the adequacy of world democracy more than ever before. The significance of such issues aren’t new- they come as a result of historical failings- ones which have amounted to consequences of epic proportions.
The extent of the ruptures of modern democracy are far bigger issues than events such as Brexit; the current tendencies are simply just a product of intergenerational complacency- it has been 45 years since the end of Nixon, as an example. Highlighting Nixon’s tenure in office is just, as his presidency was one that rocked public trust in elected officials to an all-time low. His example was so prominent, that every political scandal has since been shipped with the -gate suffix, a grammatical aspect which hints at the failings of a manipulated democracy. He never recovered and seemingly, nor has democracy.
The culmination of today’s seismic political events have only highlighted the grave splits that have been hidden in institutions of democracy.Brexit only highlighted politics’ shortcomings- it didn’t forge them.
Nixon’s presidency coated a quilt of doubt on the ability of politicians and governments across the world to use their power with responsibility and maintain accountability to the people. That quilt of irrepressible gloom suffocated the bedrock of public trust, and now it seems as though the veils are being pulled over the eyes of the public. Ironic, considering the ‘biggest ever’ democratic exercise in the UK only took place a mere 3 years ago. Ironic, considering Donald Trump promised to fix a ‘broken Washington’. The culmination of today’s seismic political events have only highlighted the grave splits that have been hidden in institutions of democracy, to which haven’t been as noticeable as they are today.
Perhaps the biggest question of British democracy is that of our parliamentary component of convention is an element which has perhaps reached its viability as a tolerable tool of politics. There is no doubt that it has worked, but the heavy collision between direct and representative democracy has corroded trust from both sides of the European question- even if it was initially a party spat. There is no doubt that democracy in the UK had one of the boldest inceptions in the world, and traces of that beginning are very much still demonstrative today. It is notable that belief in history and political precedents is important, but there must now be a pragmatic change to the way politics works. Pragmatic being the realisation that the system is broken, and by using the last three years as examples, learning from the grave errors that have now preceded this piece.
In a Liberal democracy prided on the political freedom of the public to sway the biggest political decisions of the day, the incompatibility of this week’s events not only highlight that more scrutiny needs to be placed on government, but also, more transparency on MPs. The Democratic Audit, published annually with the LSE, had warned of the importance of improving the state of parliamentary process before this most recent implosion. Minimal actioning followed. The adequacy of scrutiny is simply non-existent, and this is not a new phenomenon contrary to popular knowledge- Blair got away with it. His actioning of the Iraq war in 2003 was the biggest scandal to slither past the coat of scrutiny preceding the issue of Brexit, and families will argue they still haven’t seen the light of day since. The deep lies in which his government told over ‘weapons of mass destruction’ had fooled Parliament then, and the now infamous ‘Dodgy Dossier’ could have spared the livelihoods of British soldiers. Had there been more accountability, perhaps this course of action may have been prevented- lives saved, democracy preserved. There must be no mistake: the failures of the constitution are not simply down to a lack of modernisation, but rather the failure of a Parliament to advocate for meritocratic representation. Forget ideology or partisanship, this obnoxious slide in good representation has been flummoxed by the conscious decision of parties to promote tribalism and opportunism.
Boris Johnson’s selection as an MP in 2015 is evidence enough to suggest this; as Mayor of London, he made his intentions clear that he would combine his role as MP with mayoralty. This not only a negation of his role to the public of London, but also to his new Ruislip constituency. It is not feasible to suggest that he could have done both jobs well enough, as both are in essence, full time jobs. Boris was a personality, one which would have proved vital for the Conservatives in 2015 (which they won). This was not a selection based off of Boris’ skills to help his new constituents, because if it were, the job would have gone to someone with more time and availability to represent a constituency. And, is it at all a surprise that Boris’ best contribution as PM so far has been dubbing Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘chlorinated chicken’? It probably will not come as such a shock that his decision to suspend Parliament was seen by 46% of people as undemocratic, compared to 32% on the contrary (YouGov, snap poll). Ipsos Mori have also chipped in with a poll: 75% of people are already dissatisfied with the government- making it the least popular incoming government in 40 years. This may just be a speculative poll, but if this has any true indication of the state of British democracy, then there is a lot to fear. There will inevitably be an election though, and with the government electioneering through policy proposals, it could be about to change. There may be a mandate, and suddenly all the issues over a non-legitimacy would be resolved. Brexit could even be finalised. In a Utopia, yes. With the electoral system however, the woes are set to continue.
Forget ideology or partisanship, this obnoxious slide in good representation has been flummoxed by the conscious decision of parties to promote tribalism and opportunism.
VOTES AND TECHNOLOGY
It does usually fall on an election to fix the broken political split in Westminster, but any potential election could be one that threatens to have the opposite effect. Our current system of voting has been widely criticised for some time: First Past the Post relies upon a simple majority in each constituency for a candidate to win a seat, and as a plurality system, often the national results are skewed quite significantly. Take the Labour heartlands for instance, these constituencies collectively voted to leave the EU, with 70% of the heartland constituencies doing so. But, DeltaPoll suggest that any chance of a pro-Brexit party winning there is extremely slim as these areas decisively vote for Labour on a habitual basis. So, Labour will keep their heartlands regardless. The problem comes when pro-Brexit parties will begin to contest tight seats that change hands often, and with the vote being split significantly, the possibility that remain parties could sweep in and win a seat are likely (i.e. Lib Dems). Labour are behind in Wales, the Conservatives face the possibility of being wiped out in Scotland and potentially, the Brexit Party’s vote could be completely misrepresented due to the voting system.
Boris Johnson may be polling at around 35% at the moment, but in today’s politics that will only be worthy enough to be a minority government, if polls were to stay at a similar place during an election. The voting system may well suit parties like the Conservatives, but in a time of political toxicity, it is hard to imagine how long it will remain in place if hung parliaments are consistently produced. There may be a bigger issue with democracy now; a problem that threatens to misinform, lie and destroy the premise of accountability. The fake news and distorted political propaganda on social media platforms such as Facebook have already allegedly flirted with the EU referendum and the 2016 US election; there are genuine fears that it may continue if a new election rolls around the corner.
The select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently published a report that suggested that on sites such as Facebook, genuine news stories are getting less coverage than fake news due to the level of manipulation that these headlines go through to get featured. This all follows the concerning revelations that during the 2016 EU referendum, around 50 million Facebook profiles were ‘harvested’ by former data company Cambridge Analytica. These figures and profiles were shared with Leave.EU and the UKIP campaign during the referendum. The now infamous Brittany Kaiser released emails to the committee earlier this year that were indicative of the rigorous data campaign that Cambridge Analytica performed, giving a further indication that mass manipulation of voters by technology has undermined British democracy- that much is clear.
Problems over populism and fake news have been liked as a matter of certainty in Italy, with fake news ‘having undoubtedly favoured right wing populist parties’ there. So is it that surprising that democracy is suffering as a result? A report by Italian researchers suggests that people choose to be apart of a ‘fake news bubble’, due to their prior preference of digesting news from populist sources. The biggest issue that this report outlines is the self-echo chambers that platforms like Facebook allow for; people are able to share their political views and tendencies, which is reinforced by confirmation bias. In this particular study, it is open to suggest that for whatever reason, people are taking rational decisions to share and believe warped information. There could be a link with socioeconomics and the news someone chooses to share, but there are limited links to suggest such an explanation, although it does hold some logic.
People are taking rational decisions to share and believe warped information.
In a liberal democracy, the media system should be diverse and pluralistic and there could be a case to blame social media for the the erosion of free, correct and informative publications during an election. Fake news is so threatening, that consecutive governments have outlined approaches of tackling this manufactured, false medium of information. Whether these measures are successful or not will be hard to interpret. The beauty of being in a liberal democracy is that news is overly unregulated, with the formal news outlets all have binding codes of conduct in regards to journalistic integrity. Social media and other such outlets don’t, but establishing such a conduct would be near impossible. The social media companies will need to step-up, and with Facebook’s employment of Sir Nick Clegg, it would appear as though they are trying to tackle these problems seriously. But, evidence suggest they just haven’t. Another election could be submerged in dangerous rhetoric fuelled by populist ideas, starting from the very social media apps on everyone’s phones. That will not mend a political crisis. Undoubtedly, it will worsen it.
Democracy has flourished through the failings outlined; the vibrancy of Westminster is indicative that actually, informal political interaction is strong. But, what has it achieved? It takes formal political change to tackle the key issues of the day, but if formal political interaction is failing, where is it that change can really be achieved? This is the question that is facing our times and an answer is needed fast. If not, a broken democracy will soon become a dead one.