Do we still have a true democracy?

Image credit:  Raul Mee

Image credit: Raul Mee

As the Prime Minister demanded yet again that MPs vote for her Brexit deal, it's worth asking if we still have a true democracy.

The public clearly think something is wrong with our democracy. Offered the chance to 'take back control' in 2016, 52% of the public took it. But we know the desire to have more of a say in politics crosses political loyalties. The record breaking petition to revoke Article 50 has raced past 5.5 million signatures, showing huge disquiet with the direction of our democracy.

For many people, faith in democracy was linked to whether politicians could improve our lives. In the 30 years of politicians offering less and less, turnout in elections has fallen. Devastated public services and councils facing bankruptcy sit next to a generational housing crisis in the government’s in-tray. The pleas of children to face up to the climate crisis go ignored while handouts flow to the economic elite. This is the new normal.

Commentators and researchers are now suggesting anger about the hollowing out of public services drove the Brexit vote. It’s fair to assume people were voting for decisions affecting their lives be made with more attention to their actual needs.

But the exact opposite has happened. From the very start, Theresa May used the Brexit vote as a hammer to break democratic norms. Those making the big decisions about our lives are more remote from the rest of us than ever. The Conservative party gets most of its funding from the economic elite. A billionaire-funded trans-Atlanic alliance appear to be deciding our post-Brexit trade policy. Our work with Spinwatch revealed how lobbyists are Brexit’s biggest beneficiaries. Ministers breaking the rules without consequences has become an almost weekly event.

But this week has taken the most authoritarian turn yet. Blaming Parliament for her failure, Theresa May claims authority direct from the people. Saying “I am on your side” despite huge opposition to her deal is just desperate rhetoric.

Two years ago, our Democratic Brexit report showed how to reach a national consensus. The government could have promoted public participation through citizens’ assemblies and other methods. Instead we've seen a war of attrition against MPs to force through a deal designed by Number 10.

We’re now days away from a no deal Brexit with even more chilling implications for our democracy. May’s latest behavior is the logical conclusion of freezing out the people and Parliament at every turn. For this government, any democratic oversight of the most significant political change in living memory is a threat. If we still live in a meaningful democracy, it’s one steeped in crisis.

A government forcing through change this big, while ignoring other national crises, means our democracy is pretty unhealthy.

There's only one way to move on from this crisis. We the people must demand more from our democracy. We need to make it normal for citizens to have a say in decisions affecting us. Not just a vote under a flawed election system every few years. We need to say it's unacceptable for a political and economic elite to make decisions in their own interest.

To do that, we need a new constitution. Find out more here.

Sam CoatesComment