In defence of liberal democracy

By Matt Beebee

Whether it is right or wrong to do so, political thinkers from Machiavelli to the present have often put forward an idea of the ‘proficient elite’ and the ‘inept many’. For what might seem like obvious reasons, anyone who holds such views would be seen as an enemy of democracy. This is not strictly true. Liberal democracy has asserted itself as the dominant strain of democratic theory and governmental practice around the world but, by its very nature, only a small number of people will actually play a role in governing a society under such a system – the so called ‘political class’.

Despite only an elite minority gaining a role in government it matters how this elite secures and retains office from the many, for the many. Liberal democratic elites do so through the employment of pollsters and advertising campaigns and while politicians do their best to confuse the electorate, they intended to gain votes and secure political office through persuasion and open debate, as opposed to the coercive use of secret police, corrupted courts or politicized armies favoured by totalitarian elites. Democratic elites allow themselves to be thrown out by the electorate at regular elections, they are held to account by the electorate and do not intend to hold power for life as a totalitarian dictatorship does.

More importantly, liberal democracy encompasses competition between candidates, usually from a party that represents a particular ideological tradition. This competition produces better government than non-competitive elite rule or the noble encompassing intentions of direct democracy. Liberal democracy means that we are inevitably ruled by a group of elites but the competitive aspect of liberal democratic voting ensures that incompetent elites are replaced by more competent elites. Although, as in the US and to a degree in the UK, voters may only choose between two competitors, the open competition within a framework of free elections does produce efficient government – the incumbent elites wish to perform well to boost their competitiveness in relation to their opponents.

However, just who can become a member of the political class is a contentious and controversial issue. Despite western liberal democracies – most specifically in mainland Europe – having fiercely competitive elections, the system of recruitment to the political class is often seen as restrictive. Take the UK for example: a large proportion of the UK cabinet is made up of privately schooled, university educated, middle-class men. All three of the main party leaders were educated at Oxbridge; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband read PPE at Oxford – the so called ‘Prime Minister maker’ of degrees. For liberal democracy this raises the question ‘just how representative is the political class?’ Despite its competitive electoral process, this process is often seen by the electorate as competition between likeminded individuals vying for power who are often pejoratively viewed as ‘professional politicians’ doing nothing but go straight into the battlefield of party politics.

Yet we should not be so quick to judge ‘professional politicians’ with cynicism for a numbers of reasons. First, there are many worse political systems than liberal democracy. Second, doctors, just like politicians, are often not very like the majority of people they care for in terms of lifestyle and education yet we still value them as integral members of society. Thirdly, if politicians do a poor job of promoting the interests of the people they represent on a local and national level they can be voted out at regular intervals. Fourthly, political failure is often more than sheer incompetence; politicians face conflicting pressures and are presented with tasks that are often difficult to perform without something going wrong along the lines. Without meaning to sound patronising, could the role of a professional politician be improved if ordinary citizens were given more political activity in some Athenian-style democratic system?

Liberal democracy brings with it one fundamental advantage and that is its ‘liberal’ aspect of private freedom; liberal democracy crucially sees a difference between the state and society meaning that individuals can prosper unimpeded and pursue one’s own economic, occupational, educational, social and religious choices without hindrance. Indeed, most of us see these liberties as far more important than our political liberty to the right to vote as these are liberties that affect us on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the reasons why half of us do not exercise the right to vote in important national elections; we know whatever the outcome of the election we will retain our private freedom. While this may be true to a degree, it is a rather sad situation that the most redeeming feature of liberal democracy, its protection of private liberties, is all too often taken for granted while the political system that supports these liberties is neglected. More to the point, this is only half the reason why we no longer vote.

The other half is apathy and our perceived lack of political accountability that stems from the previously noted problem of representation. Most of the apathetic attitude towards politics is due to the feeling that voting in elections is our only role within the democratic system; however, every citizen also upholds the democratic right to follow and question government action. This can easily be done by remaining active; contacting or meeting the local politician, being on the floor of a political TV show or even joining a political party. We fail to keep an effective check on our politicians, often cynically dismissing liberal democracy as impossible to hold accountable and therefore there is no point in even voting to begin with. This is a view that should be avoided at all cost. Both the electorate themselves and the political class must do more to increase the experience and the competence of matters of political engagement and politics more generally.

As imperfect as liberal democracy is, it is, ultimately, indispensable with the rule of law within a civil society. However rule of law is not the means to creating a civil society, quite the contrary. Rule of law is the by-product of a society based on liberal principles: absent of snobbery, social integration for women and immigrants and the diminishing of economic and social inequalities at large. Without these facets, the rule of law is a meaningless concept and so is liberal democracy. It is these liberal principles that give liberal democracy its democratic nature as previously accepted grounds for claiming political power have been removed by-and-large (as well as power in the private sphere). It is not foolish to argue that the core values that underpin liberal democracy are its social, not its political, aspects. For this, we should be thankful; as problematic as it is, there are much worse and challenging political systems than liberal democracy and the decent government it encompasses.


The state of British electoral politics

By Alex Bryan

In the Observer today the ever-excellent Andrew Rawnsley has written an article exploring the north-south divide in Britain. He demonstrates that the divide transcends class, that it is entrenched in British politics and, most importantly, that the party which manages to bridge the divide (or at least best identifies ways in which to diminish it) will reap the rewards of doing so. Though Rawnsley is on the whole correct in identifying the nature of the problem, I think there are a few aspects to it which he does not mention but which are important to bear in mind.

Firstly, Rawnsley notes that ‘The divide has become self-fuelling. A Tory in Bradford who fancies being an MP has a choice: find another ambition or leave Bradford. That is why Eric Pickles represents a seat in Essex.’ This only tells half the story, and leaves out a key component; the party machine. Candidate selection for both Labour and the Conservatives revolves around maintaining the seats of existing MPs (especially cabinet or shadow cabinet members) and planting those in the ascendency in safe seats to ensure a swift route into Parliament. The seemingly interminable procession of Downing Street advisors moving into Parliament demonstrates this. David Miliband, for example, had little connection to South Shields before being parachuted into the constituency.

This relates to the north-south divide at a basic level, in that the desire to ensure the best candidates being fielded by the party in an election get elected means the party apparatus places the best candidates (or at least those most likely to go on to high profile posts) in safe seats. This leaves the swathes of seats where the party had little chance of winning anyway contested by first-time candidates, former councillors and those ultimately seeking to do well enough to be allowed to run in a more winnable constituency next time. This clearly reflects the reality of the north-south divide, but it also exacerbates it.

Rawnsley, as I mentioned earlier, also noted that whichever party makes the nation ‘whole again’ awaits a great prize, presumably a streak of electoral success. However, it seems to me far more likely that this effect be achieved through the fragmentation of the nation rather than a process of political reunification, whatever that might involve. The referendum on Scottish independence will be more significant for long term British electoral politics than any other election in the next 20 years. If Alex Salmond gets his way, the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom will be the ultimate gift for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives only hold one seat in Scotland, whereas England is a sea of blue dotted with island nations of red or yellow. For Labour, Scottish cessation would be a disaster, and could feasibly mark the beginning of the end for the party as a genuine force in British politics. The north-south divide will linger, but the north will be considerably smaller. Elections, hence, would no longer be fought in the midlands, but in the south.

Scottish independence would essentially relegate the north-south divide from being a genuine division across the middle of the nation into a regional anomaly, a patch of red over an overwhelmingly blue backdrop. It is difficult to imagine how Labour could end up with a similar sort of advantage, though Conservatives have a point when they say the current  constituency map already favours Labour.

Rather than such structural chance, it seems the most likely way in which the divide might be bridged, at least temporarily, is through individual politicians who can appeal to the Other Half of the divide. As Blair reached out to southerners and Thatcher embodied the social mobility and no-nonsense attitude of the north, individual politicians are in general more capable of uniting the north and south into a workable electoral coalition than parties as a whole. Parties reflect their demographic base, whereas individuals can disguise theirs. From this, it seems unfortunately clear that, barring Scottish independence, the north-south divide is here to stay. 

Ghana 2012: the results are in

By Oliver Griffin

Ghana’s 2012 election campaign has come to a close; incumbent president John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) has narrowly won in the poles to secure a four year term in office. Although there have been a few unsubstantiated claims of foul play and vote rigging, these seem half hearted. Since the end of military rule in 1992, Ghana has enjoyed successive peaceful elections with few incidences of trouble or violence – now that the elections are over, the rest of Africa will wait with baited breath to see if this will be yet another non-violent transition from one term to another. Despite the levels of unrest exhibited in neighbouring countries during their elections, Ghana’s ‘model democracy’ has often been held as a ‘beacon of hope’ in West Africa, providing a stabilising influence in the region.

Anxieties were present in this election; Mr Mahama only took over as president earlier this year when his predecessor, John Atta Mills, died of stroke in July. The proximity of Mr Mills’ death raised concerns over potential complications in the course of the election, not least because he had previously been expected to run for another term in office. At present, Ghana is a flourishing world nation, the president of which will oversee perhaps some of the biggest spending the country has ever witnessed. With the discovery of oil off the coast of the twin city of Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana and its fast developing economy, have been thrust into international focus. As the second biggest exporter of cocoa in Africa after the Cote d’Ivoire, and a major gold mining nation, Ghana is rich in natural resources. Currently hailed as a ‘growth gem’ by investment bankers, Ghana is expected to maintain a growth rate of 8% next year, which, coupled with the slump still being felt in Europe and America, makes it one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

The main opposition faced by Mr Mahama in the election was Nana Akufo-Addo, leader of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). NPP lost the vote only marginally, securing approximately 47.74% of the vote, while Mr Mahama’s NDC won with 50.70%. Ghana’s plethora of smaller political groups gained less than 2% of the vote between them, with the majority choosing between the two main parties. Mr Akufo-Addo previously criticised the lack of jobs that the NDC had created amidst such a spending boom and had promised to turn money into jobs for Ghanaians throughout the country. It is widely speculated that as the son of a previous president, he had been ‘out of touch’ with the many poverty stricken of Ghana, who make just under £3 a day. In a country where education is deemed vitally important, it is perhaps possible that Mr Mahama’s promises of free primary and secondary education may have just tipped the balance in his favour.

As Ghana comes to grips with the results of this election, the world will watch to see what happens next. If the claims of corruption can be proven, it will be a massive blow to African democracy and stability in the West African region; if not, then Ghana is surely in for a prosperous four years as oil reserves begin to fuel its economy.

November Elections: Too cold to vote?

By Kirstin Fairnie

I really do not understand why everyone’s moaning; if only the government had not held the elections for police commissioners in November, then obviously so many of us would have turned out to vote that the poor people at the polling stations would have been traumatised by the mob of impatient voters banging at the doors to be let in. It’s funny that Mitt Romney has not used the November-effect as an excuse for his defeat.

Political analysts, much more qualified than me, have been pleading this case for weeks, so I am somewhat loath to rock the boat on this one, but I just really do not believe that if the elections had been held in July (when everyone would have been in the Costa del Sol anyway) we would all have dashed out to vote. In November, we need something out of the ordinary to cheer us up, so surely an all-new election should act like a SAD-lamp for our diaries? Apparently not, since only 15.8% of Wiltshire voters turned out yesterday.

I am still not convinced it was because of the time of year though. This explanation insults voters and suggests that we see voting in national elections as no more important than filling out an online feedback form. Unless there is a free iPad at stake, we won’t bother wasting 30 seconds of our time. It suggests that we see voting as so unimportant that cold and wet weather will deter us from leaving the house. Surely a country such as ours that deems itself to be a paragon of Western democracy and is shocked and appalled by Xi Jinping’s undemocratic slide into the Chinese presidency would have an electorate with a burning passion to express their opinions at the polling booths come rain or come shine?

Yes, it is bit odd that so few people in Wiltshire seem to value actually bothering to vote as the cornerstone of a democratic society. I would be interested to know how many of the people who did not vote grumble about the work that their elected police commissioner does during their time in office. I expect it will be something a little higher than 15.8%. But I do not think that this can be put down to the weather.

For starters, this year the weather was as depressing then as it is now, probably more so actually since we really don’t expect driving rain and gale-force winds in July. And if it had been a normal year, the baking heat would have made us too lethargic to get up from our siestas to vote, and we would certainly not have been running anywhere. On a summer’s day, there is a higher risk that I would not be able to vote because I was buried in sand at the beach or because I had got lost trying to find an ice cream van.

Rather than criticising the government’s timetabling, I think it is more important that we look at reminding people just how important it is to exercise your democratic right to vote.

Bleeding Heart: Nobody Messes With Baby

By S.M. Blanchard

When I was sixteen, I went to see Barack Obama speak on a cow farm outside of my hometown in downstate Illinois. I stood in the bandstands on a cold April morning as the rain poured down atop a large white tent, which sat in the middle of the barely ripe corn stalks. The atmosphere drew my imagination to images of clowns, lions, tightrope walkers, and all other things that involved the circus.  This was my first clue as to what awaited my young self and my future encounters with U.S. politics.

I was one of maybe four liberals standing under the tent that day (this being an area of America south of the Mason Dixon line, where politics and its degenerate sister-liberal politics were not often discussed outside bylines of the Fox News broadcasts that occasionally hummed in the background of NFL football games and pizza parlors).  However, back in 2005, a name was starting to appear around our area a lot. Rumor had it, this guy could make people believe in something. And in an area that had seen several of its sons go off to fight a war, we needed it.

So there Obama stood in front of us, talking to the conservative, evangelical farmers of rural Illinois about the importance of exports in agriculture. Obama managed to clearly lay out not only how valued the Southern Illinois agricultural industry was for the state as a whole, but also how Illinois agriculture played a vital  role in helping boost America’s international exports. We weren’t just part of the state picture, or even the national picture. Those fields we tended, the livestock we raised, all our hard work had a vital and important place in the international framework. We farmers were international players.

By the end of his speech that day, Obama had made each individual in a room of roughly half a thousand people, feel as though their individual work was an essential part of the American economy. Even though I was only sixteen, I remember what it felt like in that tent after Obama spoke. Everyone came out of there believing in an idea that was bigger than themselves.

These past for years under the Obama administration have not exactly been the change we were fed to believe we would see. Some of those changes have taken place, most notably Obama Care- a policy that has saved the lives of countless friends who would not have been able to have the consultations, surgeries, treatments, and transplants they needed to survive. Other policy promises are yet to be fulfilled, and may not be.

I wont pretend that my political beliefs have no pertinence with why I wanted to obtain my masters in a foreign country. It was a quest to understand different political systems, different ideologies, and different beliefs. The United Kingdom has not let me down in that regard. I’ve had my conservative beliefs challenged on everything from what constitutes a national boarder in relation to migrant patterns to the morality of Obama’s methodological ‘kill list.’ These are notions that, even as a liberal American, went unchallenged in my mind until I learned from those living outside my boarders.

When I woke up at 2am London time to watch the speech this morning, my slightly embittered heart braced itself for what was to come: here stood two men – one man whose social policies I did not care for, and whose confusing economic policy seemed to lean upon unethical and unpragamatic practices. The other man had promised my generation a better tomorrow. After four years of a ‘two steps forward, one step backwards’ term, my hope was sinking for America. I was petered out by weary zealous partisan rhetoric, and ready to see a shift in the way America thinks politics. The thought of compiling a list of liberal countries I could declare political asylum was the first thing on my to-do list (regardless of the victorious candidate).

But there was only one thing that came to mind as I watched Barack Obama take on Mitt Romney in the second political debate of the election season: nobody messes with Baby.

The novelty of Obama’s approach last night wasn’t in the promised zingers, but in the fact that he came out doing what he does best: speaking as himself. He took on health care, the attacks on the Syrian Embassy, and women’s rights not by dogging issues or by keeping it diplomatic.  He attacked clearly and acutely.  More so, Obama made each issue stand clearly as major political concern not only for the American people, but also of himself.  He carried each concern into its larger context, carrying out that same sense of energy and excitement that I felt seven years ago when I sat in that circus tent. There is still potential for something bigger to happen.

Last nights debates inspired a new form of zest in the election coming in an old package; a sure candidate with a sound belief in his policy plans for the nation. It inspired an old hope for a continued change.  Because there has been change; a slow, continual change. Perhaps not as fast as we  bleeding heart liberals would like to see it. But there are a lot of voices in America, and perhaps the radical change that many of us would like to see, isn’t the best way for America. Perhaps it is this slow gradual change- a change that incorporates the voices of as many Americans as possible –both conservative and liberal alike- into a larger bureaucratic picture of democracy, is that change.