I concluded a recent book review (Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan) for Lobster magazine saying I thought democracy couldn’t be fixed. It is of course fixed, but not repaired. Reading the latest from FiveThirtyEight today about how Trump is preparing to usurp the ‘greatest democracy on earth’ bolsters my view that whatever we think democracy means, it doesn’t mean delivering the will of the people. I can anticipate the counterblast straightaway—a ‘majority’ voted for Brexit and that’s what we’re getting. It bears repeating of course that a majority of the UK electorate didn’t vote for Brexit, and that when complex questions are corseted in binary choices few people will actually exercise control over what subsequently happens. But democracy isn’t just about voting every four or five years (where have I heard that before?). Democracy ought to be about access and influence over the powers that be over a period of time. The legitimacy of a government can evaporate within months of its election but then for four or five years the public can just be bystanders. I think we are seeing this already with the Johnson government. As opposed to the Major government there may not be a single, defining moment when the game is seen to be up, but a steady drip feed of incompetence nevertheless is wearing down confidence—even it seems amongst its own backbenchers. And yet Johnson’s government still out polls the Labour Party. That’s a thought for another day, but I wonder whether there is any way in which voters generally could be tasked with taking their ‘democracy’ more seriously? And if the answer is no, then we revert back to the old wisdom of ‘you get what you vote for’ or ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for the government always wins.’ Ken Livingstone wrote a book called (if memory serves) ‘If voting ever changed anything they would abolish it.’ Clearly he didn’t quite believe that himself, since he stood for election many times at many levels, but a point is made. The battle currently underway in the US is all about which party will gain the advantage in e.g. the electoral college or the Supreme Court and this will arouse emotions and possibly lead to violence. But whichever way the result goes, how much difference will there be made? Will Biden do what’s necessary to tackle, e.g. climate change? How will he respond to the industrial lobbies? Will our much sought super free trade deal with the US export our food standards to them (Ho-ho)? Will the US stop interfering in other countries’ affairs (cue more laughter)?
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