If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “You can’t trust politicians”.
The stubborn streak in me (or the academic streak, or the Yorkshire streak) wants to challenge all such oft-heard phrases.
I would certainly agree that there are some politicians you can’t trust, and they tend to get a lot of coverage on TV and in the papers. Nonetheless, there is something intrinsic to democratic politics which is noble, praise worthy, and deserves our respect.
Allow me to unpack.
But first let me make a bold statement: democratic politics is about conducting fairly and in the open business which would otherwise be conducted in secret, and with no thought to fairness.
Many years ago, I was part of a largish membership organisation — not a political one — where the outgoing leadership appointed the incoming leadership. I was approached by one such who asked me if I thought I had any role to play in the future leadership. I felt in rather a false position, since it was really not for me to say whether I had such a role or not. It was only a few weeks later that I learned that the person’s colleagues had thence been informed that I had definitively no interest in a leadership role.
It was all a very long time ago, and deeply insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The people involved doubtless felt that their system was discreet, gracious, and avoided all the grimy electoral politics of other organisations of a similar size. However, the upshot was that I had turned down a position which — probably — I would greatly have relished, without even realising that I was being offered it. You might say I was being naive. With hindsight, I would tend to disagree.
Over the years which followed, I’ve watched similar kinds of things being played out in clubs, sports teams, board rooms, and even the decision-making processes of large public bodies. As often as not, nobody is really at fault, nobody has malign intentions, and yet, equally as often as not, the very worst decision or appointment of a set of options is made.
This is politics, but it is not democratic politics.
Democracy requires three things to function: open debate, proper governance, and free voting.
It requires open debate because the moment debate moves behind closed doors — for reasons of national security, or to avoid upsetting anyone, or with whatever other cause — any eventual decision will be a second-hand one. Most large companies are set up with shareholders who have clear voting rights, and could, if they chose to vote together, overturn the decisions of the Board, or have it replaced. Very few large companies could genuinely be called democratic, because all of the information on which realistic decisions are made is commercially confidential. The decisions are made at the Board meeting, not the shareholder meeting, or more likely at the executive team meeting, or, just as likely, between a couple of powerful individuals. Without the opportunity to scrutinise information and test it publicly, voting may as well be bingo.
Proper governance is required because there must be procedures by which things are done. Governance provides the level playing field, so that everyone knows on what date they will be able to make their case and to vote, what their actual authority is, and how the decisions will be implemented. I saw a magnificent letter on Facebook the other week from a student body to a departmental head, threatening a student strike if their terms were not met. They might as well have copied it to the prime minister and the pope — since none of them actually had the power to do the things they wanted. Student politics is beset by committees making decisions which they have no power to action, but it happens in more adult gatherings quite frequently as well. When a group of people vote to do something which they have proper authority to do, it’s democracy. When they vote for something which they have no authority over, and do it anyway, it’s conspiracy.
Free voting is necessary because unless at the point of the vote itself each participant can choose to change their mind, there is no value to the public debate and scrutiny. This is why block votes are undemocratic. It is also why the UN, for all its attempts at participatory decision-making, is not and cannot be a democratic institution. The General Assembly can vote on whatever it likes, but without the Security Council backing it, it may as well be a student junior common room voting on whether or not to acknowledge that France is to the north of Africa.
Not everything should be democratic — there is a role for a proper executive to take actions without any voting — and everyone in a democracy should acknowledge that with power comes responsibility. We vote for the good of all, not for our own good.
Something which is often overlooked — almost always, in fact — is that the vast majority of people involved in democratic politics in the UK are doing it as volunteers, without payment or promise of influence. Councillors receive an allowance, and MPs a salary, but the vast groundswell of activists get nothing. There are, of course, enormous ructions whenever an MP pay rise is mooted. This has been going on so long that MP pay has fallen dramatically behind comparable pay since the 1970s. The effect of this is to make it increasingly unviable for people who are not independently wealthy to stand for parliament at all. At the last election, the average Lib Dem candidate in a hopeful seat spent more than £10,000 of their own money in the final year. The vast majority of them were not elected. A Tory party survey suggested at one point that the average Tory MP has had to spend £100,000 to get elected. This money does not go on somehow bribing the electorate, but merely on the logistics of moving house, giving up work time and so on.
Politics can be nasty, it can be selfish, it can be rude, and it can leave everyone involved bruised and battered. Even so, I believe open debate, proper governance and free voting is infinitely preferable to decisions made behind closed doors, as often as not by the old boys or the new girls networks, where no decision can be challenged because no decision is even recorded.
If it were up to me, there would be no office politics, no team and organisational politics. All decisions would be made by those most competent for the good of all, and promotion would be entirely on merit. Every recorded attempt to bring about those conditions has, I’m afraid, become a more covert form of the same thing, as brutally satirised in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Revolution — for such would be needed —has a good track record only in delivering more revolution.
If there is to be politics, let it be democratic politics, and let those who constantly expose themselves to the bitter wind of public opinion by engaging in debate, observing true governance, and putting themselves to the free vote — let those people be recognised for the good they do for all.