Thursday, 23 June 2011

Representative democracy vs parliamentary democracy

Courtesy of Edward Spalton I am directed to this article from The Times of Malta about the referendum on the question of divorce and, more relevant, on the question of referenda in general - the author being Alfred Sant, former Labour leader. Unintentionally, it also raises a further question, that of parliamentary democracy vs representative democracy - which much as some would wish to believe are the same thing, are not.

It would appear that Sant, like all politicians, believes that they can act as they wish, regardless of the electorate's desires - but more of that later. In regard to any referendum in this country Sant makes an extremely important point when he writes that referenda:
".... can be, and are, manipulated by existing power structures. There never is a level playing field when the government of the day launches a referendum. Moreover, as has happened repeatedly in Europe these last two decades, when a government unexpectedly loses over some referendum, it arranges to hold it all over again under circumstances which ensure it gets its own way. In Ireland they even reversed the law which tried to give equal resources to both the pro-government and anti-government positions."
and in that context, I can but return to the points I made in this post, that an in/out referendum would have to be carefully managed. One point is worth making and that is that if, under the present system of democracy, politicians are allowing the people a say over a particular policy, once they have presented a fair and balanced statement of the problem they should perhaps 'butt-out' and therefore not attempt to influence their electorate, which would negate any accusation of 'manipulation'. Some may hold that to be an infringement of free speech, however it would ensure that the electorate could decide, unhindered and thus free from party political persuasion.

Returning to the question of who MPs are and the reason for their election, Sant admits that they are elected as representatives of their electorate, but also as delegates, to deliberate on matters related to the common good and to decide upon them in their name, to decide according to policy principles, programmes and visions about the future which they share with their electorate. Sant continues:
"It is true that such decisions are structured in the main through political parties. However, this in no way means that voting in Parliament is exempt from the personal responsibility of each and every representative. To the contrary, each and every vote taken by an MP must be a principled one. When following the party line, an MP’s vote is not being less principled than it otherwise would be. Nor does this detract from its representative nature."
Sant's admission and also the extract above are based on the premise that MPs are elected to serve party, their conscience and their country, in that order - and it also epitomises all that is wrong with this form of democracy, namely parliamentary democracy, because parliamentary democracy cannot be representative in practice. If Sant's first admission, namely that an MP is elected to represent his constituents, is accepted as correct then it means that any vote must reflect the majority view of those constituents - and therefore any vote which follows the party line is being less principled than it should be. Likewise, if an MP's wishes to describe him/herself as a representative then personal conscience should not enter any decision on how he/she should vote - they are not elected to vote with, or because of, their personal conscience. This point illustrates the detrimental effect that political parties have on a truly representative democracy as MPs are then in danger of being forced to accede to political dogma.

Sant also maintains that:
"The point remains: as instruments of direct democracy, referenda, undercut the logic of representative democracy. In good faith, the need now is for the proper implementation of the mechanisms of representative democracy in order to carry out the outcome of a direct consultation of the people. Yet the proper function of MPs as representatives – as delegates – of the people must be preserved."
a statement which I interpret as Sant wanting his cake and eating it. Referenda do not undercut representative democracy providing the representatives reflect the majority view of their constituents. He appears to confuse the words "representative" and "delegate", two words which do not have the same meaning. If selecting parliamentary democracy then it must be accepted by the electorate that the delegates can do whatever they damn well please, can toe the party line to their hearts content - but they do not therefore 'represent' their constituents any more than a dictator does. Believers in a parliamentary system of government are in fact 'statists', regardless of their political persuasion. Nothing illustrates this assertion better than a quotation from Theordore Forstmann, who said:
"[Statists] believe that government should make decisions for individuals. Since individuals usually prefer to make their own decisions, coercion and compulsion become necessary correctives."
 By selecting representative democracy politicians are restrained from acting arbitrarily and are there only to enact that which the electorate permits. It naturally requires small government, both nationally and locally, with the added advantage that the numbers of politicians would, of necessity, not be that large thus meaning less cost to the public purse; that their attendance in any legislature would not be that onerous; and that the greatest check on their standards would be by a 'no-strings' recall system. Such a system would guarantee that never again would the electorate have to fear their politicians but, as should be the case, the politicians would have to fear the electorate.

And therein lies why, come the revolution, parliamentary democracy must be replaced with representative democracy.


Stuart said...

I am a firm believer that something in our system currently is very wrong. Many have pondered on what that something is. I think most have identified that we have little or no control over our representatives. Richard North believes we should have an iron grip on governments purse strings. Having a better separation of power as we currently don't really have any would be a good start.

Three men stood up last year (leaders debates) and gave us their speal, when only about 150,000 people actually had the chance to vote for them directly. The rest of us voted for them by proxy. So what do we vote for? Do we vote for an MP or do we vote for a party to govern? I think we should vote for a government or Prime Minister directly and vote for MP's at a completely differnt time. Our government should not comprise MP's. I don't know where the Lords would come into this, but I don't agree with calling people Lord anyway. I also think we should have a proper written codified constitution with supreme court. Right of recall and right of calling our own referenda to strike down unacceptable government legislation but not create new legislation ourselves is I think also required.

Just saying...

PeterCharles said...

As Stuart says, the electorate, for the most part, votes for a party rather than a candidate. The rest of his idea is really a copy of the US system, directly elect the President, let him choose his executive and then vote in Representatives to keep the administration in check.

Well, it worked for a short while but the reality is it is just as dysfunctional as our current system, and for the same reasons. These are; too much government, too much 'law' and too much regulation. Add to that there are no consequences for Ministers or MPs when things don't work, cost too much or have any negative impact so they never learn nor have anything to motivate them to do better. Nor, it should be said, does the electorate.

Richard North's Referism, Swiss style direct democracy and similar systems might not be 100% effective in correcting the faults in our system, but even if it only corrected 10% we would still be far better off.

Small government, essential welfarism only, deregulation and government facilitating or encouraging, never providing, with the possible exception of Defence, is the only true answer.

Unfortunately that runs counter to the prevailing philosophy of social democracy which has held sway throughout the Western world, including the USA, post WW2.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

S: Would argue that there is nowt wrong with not having a written constitution on the proviso that if change is mooted, then it is the people who sanction that change and not the political elite.

PC: Go along completely with your penultimate paragraph - something, as you know, I have been arguing for for some time.