Thursday, 8 September 2011

crisis of representative democracy?

This summer the UK political system was shaken by two main events: the trials of politicians who had claimed expenses illegally and the demonstrations against tuition fees. Many people would add another event, the recent riots in some cities, but I firmly believe this is a law and order issue that the political class will address by adequate policing.

Why did the expenses scandal and the demonstrations on tuition fees stand out for me? Mainly because of the fundamental shifts in the way politics is done in this country, for which they are symptoms. The expenses scandal did not just reveal the contempt in which much of the population held politicians of all political colour, it also coincided with a crisis of trust between the represented and those representing them.

The demonstrations on tuition fees was often hailed as another 'political awakening' of young people. I believe it is nothing of this sort. Rather it reflected an unwillingness to accept that politicians could and should take decisions for the people in this country that do not accord with what they had previously promised to do. In other words, the tuition fees saga ruptured the belief that there is a direct link between people's vote in the general election and the agenda politician subsequently enact. This may be a curious aspect of the British political system only, given that Continental politics is often done with compromise between political parties due to the lack of clear parliamentary majorities. However, this rupture was significant since it also coincided with the ascendancy of new media and new technology.

What does this all mean? The decline of trust and the rupture between an (imagined) link between electoral promise and parliamentary work results above all in one thing: a crisis of representation.

This is rarely commented on in the public but I believe it is a more significant development than temporary eruptions of violence on the streets of London or Manchester.

The reason is that it lays bare the ambiguity at the heart of modern politics: that the people's will can somehow consistently be represented by politicians in parliament. Two developments have considerably undermined this useful fiction. First, the rise of modern technology which makes public the type of knowledge that has previously been only accessible to politicians, specialists, or academics. Second, the rise of the call for self-determination, on a personal and community level. Both trends chip away at the notion that a small number of politicians can and should take decisions for a large number of constituents.

The argument in favour of representative democracy has always been that direct democracy is neither practical nor reasonable. Impracticable because modern politics requires fast decision making in a complex world. Unreasonable because party politicians could channel the plethora of ideas into a competition of best political strategies which would play out fairly in the arena of parliamentary chamber.

The gravest challenge to these useful fictions is the recognition by the population that there is no reason why individuals and communities should not take the decisions themselves, that have so far been taken by politicians. Apart from international security, there is little that necessarily requires people to ask a small number of party political representatives to make decisions about their lives. The foundations of representative democracy were always shaky, now they are coming under sustained attack from two sides: politicians who, through behaving criminally, severe the trust between their constituents and themselves, and, on the other hand, a growing awareness that politicians are actually redundant in the bigger scheme of things as new forms of social communication emerge.

Over the next decade or two, politicians will be battling for their position and role in society. The outcome is not certain at all.

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