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.


Live or Let Die? 3 ways the young could influence the Coalition’s future


By Devon-Jane Airey

After David Cameron’s decision to cut housing benefits for under 25’s, his overseeing of the closure of EMA, the tripling of tuition fees and youth unemployment still over one million (not to mention Connexion services and the Future Jobs Fund scrapped) , it’s been reasonable to ask what exactly the government has against us young folk. Though, more pressingly, what the young folk can have against the government. I was reading an interesting piece of research this morning that touched upon this subject and so I did a bit of poking around to see how and in what areas the youth have the upper hand.

(1). Young people are often heavily influential in electoral steering points. Youth flocked in their thousands to support Thatcher in 1979 but, with the same merciless hand, were one of the largest groups to distance themselves from the ‘Iron Lady’ when austerity became a sickening cry. What’s more, it was the younger generation of Britain’s electorate that aided Tony Blair to his landslide victory in 1997 – with a remarkable 49% voting for the first ‘New Labour’ leader. However, this figure dropped to a mere 30% when Labour lost power in 2010. In that sense, efforts to secure the youth vote in today’s political climate aren’t solely directed towards the right: research by the Electoral Commission shows that both party leaders will have to work hard to secure this potentially tight grip on electoral victory. Indeed, apparently young people make up one of the biggest groups of unregistered voters and with the aforementioned cuts, the government have the potential to see this group expand even more. Labour’s proposals, therefore, of a mooted voter registration drive could well be a strategic move against their Conservative opponents. But there’s a moral advantage too: if you demonstrate a need to protect and enhance the voice of a certain demographic, they’re more likely to vote for you.

(2) Parties associated with a group’s enfranchisement are also a valued way of gaining a certain group’s vote. Migrant communities and their electoral loyalty towards the Labour party since the party secured their voting rights are a case in point. And, with the debate on reducing the voting age to 16 wedged within political woodwork, this could well be a band wagon party officials searching for a ‘youthful edge’ may want to jump on. There is, however, an element of risk that comes with focusing campaigns on the younger generation as statistics show the older you are, the more reliable you are to turn up to the polling station. In fact the Guardian ICM poll shows that on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being certain to vote, 18-24s score an average of less than 6, compared to over 65s who score 8.6. But with previous examples of their serious clout when rallied to turn out en masse ever present, there perhaps needs to be a more concerted effort to replace political fatigue and disillusion with political enthuse. A job for the politicians, not the people.

(3) Finally, and what is perhaps most telling, is that since the 1970s victorious parties in the general elections have always secured at least a third of the youth vote. Indeed, 42% of 18-25 year olds voted for Maggie T when she mounted her campaign to gain No. 10. The interesting exception for the Conservative party is David Cameron who secured only 30% of the youth vote in 2010. Youth representation in parliament that year, however, rose sharply due to the Lib Dems who have the lowest average age of supporter.  That said, the Lib Dems’ political forecast amongst the young folk in 2012 is, at best, patchy. Interestingly, in a month before the general election some 48% of 18-25’s were prepared to vote Lib Dem. Two years later and that figure has dropped 7 percentage points. Indeed, the Lib Dems’s decisions in office and their subsequent relationship with the younger generation has been compared to that of being dumped by your first love: a painful experience that can burn rather deep. Gaining back such trust, therefore, proves rather difficult.

So with the Lib Dem favourite out of the running, the Conservatives increasingly antagonising the young and Labour clinging loosely onto unstable proposals, it looks like the potentially valuable youth vote is there for the taking…