The Labour Party card carries the first two sentences of the new Clause 4 introduced under the leadership of Tony Blair. The second sentence is quite long and rambling, clearly written by a committee, full of sentiments which I wholeheartedly agree with, but not particularly memorable. The first sentence states simply “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” That short sentence neatly sums up what I believe the Party stands for and why I joined it.
I started to become politically aware at the age of 13, when I noticed the reports of the war in Biafra and was shocked that the world could be such a cruel place. I also started to notice, at about the same time, the effects of pollution and waste on our air, on our countryside, and on the planet as a whole. I read a slim book called “The Population Bomb” which made a compelling case for reining-in the world’s population growth (an aim which I now believe can be best achieved by improving the health, education and life-chances of the world’s populations, as has happened in Europe). And I joined Friends of the Earth fairly soon after it was founded. I took part in meetings and demonstrations while still at school, and chose my A-levels deliberately to support an application to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at university.
My first foray into original political thought was on proportional representation, and the idea I presented at my university entrance interview – of single-vote elections to variable-sized constituencies with a proportional top-up – is essentially the system which I still champion now. I had still not settled on joining the Labour Party back then, but I had developed a strong belief in the necessity of democracy if the world was going to avoid oppression, war and environmental destruction. Democracy is not binary – every political and social system has degrees of democracy, and no country has perfect democracy. But in a representative democracy, the way those representatives are chosen is crucial, and there must be a meaningful level of involvement for all the electors. I do not believe our current first-past-the-post system meets that minimum requirement.
But democracy isn’t just about how representatives are chosen. On what basis do the electors choose? A politically healthy society needs to ensure that its citizens have some access to the truth, otherwise rulers or would-be rulers can get away with lies and corrupt use of power without the voters knowing whether they should support them or remove them. Clearly a society where control of the messages put out by the media is vested in the government – such as in Russia – cannot claim to give its citizens a genuine democratic mandate, however large a majority its President might command. On the other hand, a completely unregulated media, which is in the ownership of a small number of very wealthy persons who have a vested interest in protecting their own wealth, is not going to provide the voters with a balanced and unbiased view of the political choices available to them. I believe ownership is key – the media should be staffed by people who are writing or speaking what they actually believe and asking the questions that they themselves think are important, and the only way to ensure that, is to place the ownership of media outlets in the hands of their staff, or of non-profit-making trusts such as the Guardian or Channel 4.
In addition to access to unbiased information, or at the least to a range of information which gives voters the opportunity to choose what to believe, they also need the understanding and confidence to make those choices. We must be very wary of any attempt to limit the right to vote – literacy tests were used in the Southern States of the US as a blatant tool to prevent black people from voting, not because they were illiterate, but because the white racists who administered the tests said that they were illiterate. Any instrument to disenfranchise people, however reasonable it may sound in theory, will be used by those in power to prevent that power from being taken from them. What democracy needs is voters who have been educated about the choices they can make and about the powers that they themselves have. I do not believe it is any coincidence that Margaret Thatcher’s government attempted to remove political and civic education from schools – and largely succeeded. I honestly believe that if the British public were fully aware of the core values of the main political parties and of the power that they can exercise through the ballot box, the Conservative Party would have ceased to exist as a major political force in 1923.
So, genuine representative Democracy needs a system of election which is fair, sources of information which are unbiased, and an electorate which is aware of its powers and responsibilities. But it also needs elected representative bodies which actually have the power to do what the voters have voted for. A huge amount of public frustration is caused by elected politicians who agree with them about an issue but then say there is nothing they can do. If the politicians in question are members of an opposition party, then the public frustration may arise from the voters’ misunderstanding of the way democracy works – democracy means having to accept that you cannot make something happen if the majority disagree with you, and a frighteningly large number of people appear not to appreciate that. But far too often it is the government that cannot do anything, and the reason is that the power to make the relevant decision lies in private hands.