A collective route to democratic change

Democracy does not come in one form. There are many different types of democracy, from the ancient Greek system where only men over 20 could vote directly on issues to modern representative democracies.

What this means is that simply being a “democracy” isn’t good enough. After all, Chinese citizens technically get to vote for who represents them, except that all representatives require approval by the authorities to run.

So, being a democracy in name is not good enough for the UK or elsewhere. We need to be constantly striving for improvement to further the core values of democracy: free and fair elections, an actively participating citizenry, protection of human rights and the rule of law.

The UK’s current brand of democracy currently seriously calls into question the first of these four elements: free and fair elections. Firstly there are the issues surrounding how we determine who wins an election, and what winning an election means.

With the first past the post system, the political party which wins over half of the seats in parliament gets 100% of the power in parliament. They get to decide all of the policy decisions for the entire country.

This seems reasonable until we find that the MPs who win the seats themselves do not have to earn 50% of the votes in their respective constituencies. Rather, they only have to get the most votes of any candidate. This can lead to undemocratic election results where the party with 100% of the power won less than 50% of the national vote

In 2019, the Tories won a big majority with only 44% of the votes cast

For example in the 2019 election, the Tories only received 44% of the votes, meaning that 56% of voters got a government which they did not want. Not very fair at all.

We could also point to the serious lacking of political education in our schooling system, which is pretty damning considering that politics will have a huge impact on every person for as long as they live. Everybody is expected to vote and presumably be involved with their local communities to an extent. Yet absolutely no guidance is given on how any of this works, why voting is important or what it means to be a citizen in a democracy.

That kind of education is reserved for those who live in an affluent-enough area to offer politics as an A-level qualification, and can afford to stay in education past GCSEs, rather than take a vocational apprenticeship or course.

So considering that political education is seriously lacking for the majority of people, it’s no wonder that the citizenry of the UK are politically disengaged, with less than half being considered knowledgeable about parliament, and only a third feeling that getting involved is even effective.  

The difficulty involved in running for elections is also a point of concern. Funding is a huge problem for any would-be candidates, as the state will only provide funding for candidates’ administration costs.

The cost of actually campaigning, including producing pamphlets, paying a team, organising rallies is a burden shouldered entirely by the individual. In practice, this  means that unless you are rich or can find an identity within a large political party, you will be outspent by the other political candidates and stand no chance of winning. This kind of election is only free and fair to those with deep pockets.

So, if democracy is having so many problems keeping to its four core values, we might begin to wonder what the point of this whole democracy thing is, anyway? Why do we keep trying to make democracy better?

Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen try to answer this question in Daring Democracy. Though aimed at promoting democratic values in the US, their description of the issues in American politics is strikingly familiar to anyone keeping up to date with politics across the pond here in the UK, with elections producing undemocratic results and money being more valuable than principles or truth.

Lappé and Eichen try to chart a way out of this political turmoil and argue that democratic reform is our best chance at creating a society which represents and cares for everyone.

Rejecting Churchill’s thesis of democracy being the best of a terrible choice for self-government, Lappé and Eichen give a compelling case for the dispersal of power as far and wide as it can go.

Their thesis is that concentrated power in the hands of the few in a dictatorial government, or in the hands of the wealthiest 1%, has terrible consequences for both the flourishing of human nature. Only when power is dispersed, when the power of government is dispersed amongst the population to shape the communities they live in, will citizens be able to live fully human, dignified lives.

Their vision for the best version of democracy entrusts each of us with the responsibility of the common good. The burden of responsibility does not lie with those who we elect to represent us in local government or parliament, but is a burden we all share. We all need to find meaning in the common good of the communities we are a part of, and take positive actions towards improving those communities, joining with others as we do so.

This is how we ignite connection, meaning and agency: we connect with others who share our convictions to work towards that which means the most to us, simultaneously empowering ourselves. This, they believe, is the meaning of human dignity. To be a part of our communities, and each of us being leaders in them.

So how do Lappé and Eichen see the route between where we are, and where we should go? They base their model for a successful democratic movement on the experiences of the highly influential National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in North Carolina.

The NAACP formed what is known as the HKonJ Coalition, which has convened more than 200 organisations with more than two million members. The coalition has a 14-point charter against racism, poverty, war, and for the advancement of democracy.

Reverend Dr. Barber, a prominent face of the coalition, believes that the strength of the HKonJ coalition lies in its “fusion politics”. All the organisations in the HKonJ coalition commit to support the fights of all the other members – even if a given fight is not within a group’s immediate purview. Each organisation acts on each of the 14 points, and the coalition moves forwards together as one.

This kind of grassroots fusion’ politics seems to hold the most potential for successful future movements in the UK due to its predominantly bottom-up design. Rather than motivation and momentum being propelled through a higher authority within the coalition, progress is wholly dependent and pushed by the individual members of the coalition.

This means that when a given objective achieves success – say, through legislative change – momentum does not live or die by the decision of a small number of people within the coalition. Rather, achievements inspire the organisations of the coalition to strive for more as they are committed not only to their own personal objectives, but also the objectives of the coalition as a whole.

As a result, racial justice activists work in tandem with economic equality activists and political reformers. Success is not derived purely from individual success, it is constantly strived for by everyone by fusing individual goals with those of the communities’.

Lappé and Eichen have a real vision of the future of democracy which comes through in Daring Democracy. More than a simple book of complaints about the current structure of Western political systems, it deconstructs the machinery of the billionaire-funded political elite in the US (which is just as applicable to British politics), and guides a path to a better future where community-organising moulds the politics of the future.