A short assembly on democracy

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. In its purest form this means that all of the people would have the right to speak and vote on every issue that comes before the political community. The closest any society has come to living up to this ideal of democracy was Ancient Athens in the 6th century BC. This brief experiment with democracy involved all male adult citizens meeting and voting on every issue that came before the polis, with the government being selected by randomly drawing lots.  

But even this classical ideal of democracy is tainted by closer inspection. Of the 300,000 people living in Athens at the time only 30,000 were full citizens. Women were totally excluded from the political sphere and male citizens were free to participate in public life because their lifestyle was supported by a large population of slaves. Both Plato and Aristotle were deeply sceptical of the dangers of this pure form of democracy, warning that pure democracies are particularly prone to decay into tyrannies as the masses are too easily swayed by populist demagogues. A related danger is illuminated by the trial of Socrates, who was put on trial by the Athenian polis for corrupting the youth of Athens and was sentenced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. A death that echoes through the ages, reminding us of the danger of pure democracy. Majorities can and do make mistakes and the rule of the many can lead to its own form of tyranny. 

Aristotle wouldn’t have described the political system we have today as a democracy, because it represents a compromise between popular consent and the rule of an elite. In the UK, we elect a parliament to speak and vote on our behalf, with whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons forming a government in order to implement its policies. This ensures that there is always a filter between the will of the people and the laws that are made. When seen in this light, referendums always pose the risk of creating a conflict between a purer ideal of democracy – embodied in the will of the people – and the rule of competing elites in parliament. It is this conflict between competing conceptions of democracy that is at the heart of our current misgivings about democracy and it is also the reason why the language of ‘betrayal’ has gained currency, with many people feeling that their voices have not been listened to by those elected to represent us in parliament. 

Democracy has always been a radical idea. The idea that consent is the only legitimate justification for political authority challenged the absolute rule of monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and led to the emergence of popular movements for the extension of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, this struggle was initially led by the Chartists, who gathered 200 years ago in St Peter’s Field in Manchester at an event that is now described as the Peterloo Massacre, because, what began as a peaceful gathering of people demanding the right to vote ended with a cavalry charge that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more. In a climate in which the ideal of democracy is being challenged we must remember that our right to vote was not given freely, it emerged out of a popular struggle that goes at least as far back as the levellers in the middle of the 17th century. 

It is for this reason that we must defend the ideal of democracy, whilst recognising that it is imperfect. The chief virtue of representative democracy is that it allows us to exercise our right to hold governments to account. At least every five years we have the opportunity to remove and replace a government from office, secure in the knowledge that the outcome of the election will be respected and will lead to the rapid and peaceful transfer of power. As Tony Benn said of democracy, when democracy works well it results in a situation where “there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers.” Even when we don’t get the outcome we wanted we can continue to argue, debate and protest. And we can replace the government in five years’ time.  

We should remind ourselves this morning that voting is a duty that comes with being a citizen in a democracy, but, democracy doesn’t begin or end with placing an X in a box on election day. Although the classical ideal of democracy is flawed, the Ancient Greeks understood that politics ought to be something we involve ourselves in on a daily basis. Being a good citizen requires us to take an interest in the world around us, to speak truth to power, to protest, to get involved – in short – to actively engage in politics. There has rarely been a more important time to take this advice on board, so I hope that you do so.

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-up

In the news this week…

The European Election campaign we were never supposed to have kicked off in earnest this week, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats publishing their manifestos ahead of the vote next week. There was criticism from some over the crassness of the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan adopted by the Liberal Democrats, but Stephen Bush, writing in the New Statesman, argues that the move is a ‘stroke of genius’.

With polling showing a marked dip in support for the Conservative Party, and with little evident movement in the talks between the Conservatives and Labour, Theresa May is under increasing pressure from the Chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, to name her departure date. She will meet with him, and the rest of the 1922 executive, on Thursday in what promises to be a difficult meeting for the Prime Minister.

This is now officially the longest sitting of parliament since the English Civil War and yet there hasn’t been a division in the House of Commons for over a month, illustrating the extent to which the government is in office but not in power. As Theresa May clings to power, there are a whole host of figures queuing up to replace her. This week’s ‘Brexitcast‘ podcast takes a look at the Tory contenders to replace her.

In global politics…

  • As the trade war between the US and China continues the BBC analyses who is losing out as a result.

And…there are three excellent podcasts this week from the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’ podcast…

  • On the stand-off between the Trump Administration and Congress over the Attorney General’s refusal to publish the Mueller Report in full.
  • On $1 billion of losses revealed by Trump’s tax returns over a decade.
  • On the Trump administration’s stand-off with Iran over their nuclear programme.

Cartoon of the week

Is the outcome of elections largely driven by the state of the economy?

This excellent essay was written by one of my students in the Upper Sixth. It demonstrates how to write a good voting behaviour essay, using elections as case-studies. I awarded it full marks.

To assess the extent to which the outcome of elections is driven by the state of the economy, three different elections will be analysed: the 1979 election, the 1997 election, and the 2010 election. These three elections are good samples to use because in all three of these elections, the state of the economy was high on the agenda, and as such, its impact on the outcome of the elections can be easily analysed. This essay will conclude that the state of the economy affects the perception of the governing competency of the incumbent government, which is indeed the main factor determining the outcome of elections, and as such the outcome of elections is largely driven by the state of the economy.

               The 1979 election was dominated by the ‘Winter of Discontent’, during which Britain was paralysed by trade union strikes, and the economy was a decisive determining factor in the outcome of that election. Of course, other factors perhaps played into a role in partly determining the outcome of that election as well. Firstly, most of the media backed Thatcher; most importantly The Sun, whose owner Rupert Murdoch agreed with Thatcher’s stance on trade unionism. Combined with the slick campaigning, run by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, the Thatcher campaign was indeed very much media-savvy, presenting a two-pronged campaign both to popularise and humanise Thatcher, as encapsulated in her photo shoots doing everything from holding new-born calves and drinking tea, as well as to capitalise on the perception that James Callaghan was out of touch with the problems facing the British people, evident in the false headline alleging that he said ‘Crisis, What Crisis?’ after coming back from a diplomatic trip. Furthermore, Thatcher’s public relations was very much effective at downplaying the contrast in the experience of both leaders – for instance, in advising Thatcher not to participate in a debate with Callaghan. As such, it must be acknowledged that the Conservative campaign was reasonably effective at using the media.

However, even if it was reasonably effective, it was not effective enough to stop the narrowing of the gap between Thatcher and Callaghan over the campaign. More importantly, that Callaghan was the only politician in history to have held offices in the four Great Offices of the State, yet his reputation for economic management was lost because of the effective of the Winter of Discontent only shows how important the state of the economy really was, with the 1970s Britain being presented as a nation in heavy decline, paralysed by industrial unrest. Furthermore, the result of the election also backs this interpretation. Unprecedentedly, the Conservatives evenly split the vote of the skilled working class with Labour, with both gaining 41% of the C1 group, compared to the 1974 election, in which this group was twice as likely to vote Labour – it is this skilled working class that was most heavily affected by the industrial unrest. As such, whilst there may be an argument in favour of the Conservatives’ media campaign, it is difficult to argue that it won the election, considering that the lead narrowed over time, and instead the impact of the economy was decisive in this election in swinging the skilled working class vote in favour of Thatcher and negating the superior experience and reputation of Callaghan in relation to Thatcher as Labour had lost its reputation for economic management, resulting in the Conservatives winning 339 seats compared to Labour’s 269.

                Likewise, although Blair ran a very effective campaign and Major’s government suffered from negative non-economic events, such as a series of ‘sleaze’, the Black Wednesday was the turning point. Firstly, it may be argued that Blair ran an effective campaign. Like Thatcher and even more so, he was heavily media-focused, running a strict, disciplined campaign from the Millbank Media Centre, staffed by media tsars such as Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould, organising a ‘grid’ of upcoming events to present the government in the best possible light. His very specific policies, with the use of pledge cards, including highly specific, measurable targets such as getting 250,000 of under 25 into work or cutting class sizes and NHS waiting lists, also was highly unique and gave New Labour a new, stronger way to distance itself from Old Labour, not to mention Blair’s getting rid of Clause IV, which renounced Labour’s commitment to nationalisation of industries. On top of Labour’s effective campaigning, the Conservatives also suffered from non-economic misfortunes, not least a series of ‘sleaze’ which were allegations of financial corruption and sex scandals that made Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign a laughing stock. Finally, the media also backed Blair, most importantly The Sun’s switching of allegiance, putting in its headline ‘Give Change a Chance’. As such, a confluence of effective campaigning by Labour, Tory blunders, and the backing the media, put Labour in a very strong position.

Nevertheless, looking back at the polls, the impact of the economy was crystal-clear. After the surprise 1992 victory, the Conservative government lost its lead after the Black Wednesday, which saw Britain kicked out the ERM, triggering a recession, and never recovered. It seems that the Conservative government had lost its reputation for economic management, despite the fact that the economy has been recovering strongly since. This therefore highlights the point that it is not the economy per se, but the perception of the government’s economic competence (valence) that determines the result. As such, it can be very plausibly argued that any Labour leader would have won that election, and thus Labour winning 418 seats in 1997 can largely be put to the Conservatives’ tarnished reputation for economic management following the Black Wednesday.

                The 2010 campaign was dominated by the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. There are indeed counterpoints. Gordon Brown was seen as a dull and boring leader, alleged for cowardice after refusing to call an election in 2007 hence he was dubbed ‘Bottler Brown’. Cameron perhaps successfully detoxified the Conservative Party, with the change in logo and new slogans such as ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, so the label ‘the nasty party’ no longer stuck to the same extent. Furthermore, the Cameron campaign outspent Labour’s 4 to 1, and left-wing media, such as the Guardian refused to back Brown, leaving only The Daily Mirror and The Mirror backing Labour. The Sun portrayed Cameron as an Obama-esque figure, putting in its frontline ‘Our Only Hope’.

However, it is clear that Labour was going to lose due to the 2008 financial crisis. Brown’s media bungling may not have affected him that much – for instance, despite him calling Gillian Duffy ‘a bigoted woman’, Labour still held that constituency Rochdale. There was not much policy differentiation, as all of them agreed on the principle of austerity, only disagreeing on the extent. As such, it is also clear that Labour lost mainly due to the 2008 financial crisis happening, and had Labour called election in 2007, it likely would have won.

               To conclude, the outcome of elections is largely driven by the state of the economy. The 1979 campaign was dominated by the Winter of Discontent and the economic decline of Britain in the 1970s. The 1997 election result was almost predetermined after Black Wednesday in 1992. Likewise, the 2008 financial crisis lost New Labour its economic reputation and lost it the election.