If we truly value democracy, we need to start trusting the electorate. In 2005, a fascinating study analysed the British and American press (particularly TV News) and discovered a subtle but disturbing attitude that the media is guilty of propagating. The media portrays the average voter not as an engaged and active citizen, but rather as a passive and somewhat dazed consumer; perhaps airing an emotive reaction every now and then, yet not shaping policy or offering articulate views or alternatives. This assumption, often vaguely supported by mutterings about political illiteracy, allows a system that imbues an elite few with power to prosper.
In short, the media reinforces an attitude that our political system already enforces; voters do not have the competence to really make decisions, so let’s leave it to the ‘experts’. This disturbing trend may not be all that surprising when you look a little closer at who exactly owns the British press. Only a handful of billionaires preside over much of our cherished 'free' press.
This is indicative of the much wider problem of market share. With big business increasingly being invoked as a reason not to implement particular policies, it is concerning that these same markets are controlled so often by a handful of powerful corporations. They do this not just through directly funding political parties (what about those special Conservatives clubs that grant access to Cabinet members for those that donate the most), but big business is able to throw some punches in the policy-making ring. With a neoliberal Westminster, the fear of interfering with the market or ‘scaring off’ corporate giants proves to be a knock-out every time, sending progressive alternatives crashing to the floor.
This incredible info-graphic details just some of the oligarchic tendencies of the global market, revealing just how many pots famous corporate giants have their hands in, and by extension the power they have over our consumer lives. A look closer to home reveals the energy, banking, and food markets (perhaps three areas with the biggest impact on people’s lives) all displaying oligarchic tendencies; power concentrated in the hands of a few.
Again the issue of variety takes centre stage when we look at political parties. The ideological desert that is Westminster has only been exacerbated this Parliament by the traitorous Liberal Democrats and an opposition with about as much spine (and charm) as a slug. But even the most defiant of Shadow Cabinets is relatively powerless, with the combined control of both executive and legislature that one enjoys as the Prime Minister. This, combined with party whips, makes it very hard to be heard for those brave enough to express alternatives.
It is not just ideological variety that is lacking in the Commons, but a representative Parliament as well. There are the obvious, undemocratic remnants of our archaic system such as the current House of Lords and a constitutional monarchy, but there is a better kept secret of plutocratic power that keeps the masses away from decision making and ensures the ‘old boys’ to call the shots. With a truly alarming number of millionaires in government, and representation of women and ethnic minorities appallingly low, just how easy is it for you or me to have a say in how our country is run? Big business looms again as a more important player, with the infamous revolving door between Westminster and corporate board-rooms.
Of course, this evidence of protected plutocracy in modern Britain is hardly unknown - indeed we are treading in the well-worn path of what is termed ‘Elite Democracy’. The point here, however, is that this term is dangerously disingenuous, almost giving the above a thin veneer of acceptability. If politics and society is to have a hope this century, we must recognise our system for what it is.
The all-powerful press barons and multinational corporations, the archaic and regressive institutions that have an incredible capacity for survival, and the protected privileges and savvy manoeuvring by the elites in the game of party politics, drown out the occasional smidgen of power afforded to the British people. Let us be under no illusion - we still live in a plutocracy. What's worse is that this is propped up by an idea that infects politics with no evidence and very little questioning.
The vague but all-pervasive belief that the average voter does not have the competence to decide his own fate is a dangerous remnant of millennia of hierarchies aimed at excluding all but a privileged few from controlling society. Where once they sought justification in divinely ordained monarchs or the supposed superiority of aristocrats, the last refuge of these hierarchies now lies in the unquestioned incompetence of John and Jane Doe.
We must rid ourselves of this unsupported, unfair presumption that has kept power from the people for so long. Universal suffrage should have been the start of something, but as far as the British electoral system has been concerned, it was the end.
It is said that the best place to intervene in a vicious circle is everywhere, so I propose we do just that - a two-fold solution is what is needed. Firstly, we must improve education concerning political and economic matters in schools, whilst reforming the disciplines and how they are used in Westminster to make them more accessible. Secondly, we must reform our political, communication and economic systems so that money and power is not concentrated into the hands of a few.
The recent Scottish referendum has shown that, when the people are given the power, ordinary citizens on the street can and will engage competently and passionately. There is simply no case for refusing more democratic power to the millions of people in this country that are furious with Westminster and the Etonian elite. Let’s trust people to actually control their own fates.
And when you really think about it, it’s not that radical an idea at all…
By Bradley Allsop