Political Power and Democracy

Since the canny Barons first managed to wrest the power of divine rule from royalty they have been perfecting the art of maintaining it for themselves.  After eight hundred years the political elite are masters at creating the illusion of democracy whilst following their own self-serving agenda.  Once every five years we are provided with our democratic right to vote.  We may get to do the voting, but ‘they’ get to do the choosing and that is where the real power lies.

Our two-party system pretty much locks everyone else out of the game. state-of-the-nation-part-one so if you want a seat in the House then you have to convince one of the party machines that you are ‘one of them’.   The inherent bias towards choosing those who best reflect ourselves leads to the well-founded accusation of ‘male, pale and stale’. (Of 650 MPs, 458 are male, 191 are female and just 41 from ethnic minorities) house-of-commons  Of course, democracy gives us the right to vote them out, but only by voting in another party clone produced by the same biased selection process.

Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be.  ~Sydney J. Harris

The winning party then sets about delivering their policies which will affect each and every one of us, no matter how we voted. In order to distance themselves from the delivery and inevitable comeback of these policy decisions, government sets up arms-length, independent bodies and quangos to stand at the chalk face of democracy.  Independent from government these bodies are not held to account by parliament in any direct manner, but are largely held to account by each other, wearing kid gloves.  These bodies include all the regulators, Ombudsmen and a whole host of advisory quangos.  A veritable galaxy of tax-funded organisations spinning round the mother planet to protect our democracy.  Providing the citizen with recourse to justice is a corner stone of democracy, so surely worth every penny.  However, should you find yourself in the unfortunate position of calling upon the State’s protection you will find that it is just a mirage of rhetoric and fancy websites which fails to deliver justice, remedy or even plain common sense.

For decades successive governments have favoured ‘light touch’ regulation, which is fundamentally self-regulation or no regulation at all.   In the private sector this has allowed the bankers to gamble with public money, for energy companies to form unofficial cartels and most recently for entrepreneurs like Sir Philip Green to loot the coffers of BHS and walk away with billions in the bank and a black hole where the pension fund should be.  Turns out that all that messy ‘red tape’ was actually there to protect people.  In the public sector light touch regulation has led to national scandals such as that of over 1,000 avoidable deaths at Mid Staffs Hospital, child grooming in the care system, devastating flooding in areas left vulnerable due to inappropriate agricultural  practice and a whole host of other scandals yet to make the headlines.

Light touch regulation effectively allows public bodies to investigate themselves and it should be no surprise that they tend to interpret the evidence in a partisan manner.  With a nod towards fair play these bodies provide a review process if you are unhappy with the quality of their investigation and in due course a colleague will confirm that the internal review upholds the first decision.  Democracy provides for a complaint process and political control ensures its ineffectiveness by selecting the CEO’s and ensuring they are unaccountable to the public.

In 1967 the government of the day set up the Ombudsman to be the final arbitrator for public service complaints and to protect the citizen from the abuse of power.   The Ombudsman is chosen by the Queen as a crown servant, though in reality is selected by political appointment.  The Ombudsman is currently known as the Parliamentary Ombudsman which tends to give the game away, but in a proposed reform the new body will sport the moniker ‘The Public Service Ombudsman’ to reflect the government’s  intention to ‘better to serve the public’Ombudsman-reform   A cynic might suggest that this title is in the same vein as ‘work sets you free’ or Orwell’s Ministry of Truth where the facts were altered to suit the political mood of the moment Nineteen_Eighty-Four and that the new Ombudsman will continue to work as an Orwellian ‘Memory Hole’ where all the facts are distorted before ultimate destruction using their 12 month retention policy.  Memory_hole

There is no doubt that previous performance lends credence to the suggestion that the Ombudsman is merely the government’s clean-up system.  Taking in damning evidence, delivering out whitewashed reports which vindicate everyone.  The Ombudsman failed to raise the alert over Mid Staffs as they did not investigate a single case presented to them in the time span of the Francis Inquiry.  Don’t look and you don’t find.  (The two cases in this data were presented outside the investigation time span Mid Staffs data)  The Ombudsman failed to protect mothers and babies at Morecambe Bay, delaying an investigation into poor midwifery standards until forced to take action by the publicity engendered by James_Titcombe   More recently in the Southern Health Scandal where an NHS England report exposed the fact that fewer than 1% of unexpected deaths of learning disabled people were investigated by the Trust, the Ombudsman failed once again to raise the alarm.  During the time of the NHS England inquiry the Ombudsman investigated 9% of the complaints submitted and upheld only 3% of them.   Southern Health – PHSO data  No sign here of the long-standing, systemic weaknesses which led to the death of Connor Sparrowhawk and others CQC criticise Southern Health.

As we look towards the creation of the new, ‘public-centered’ Ombudsman it is important to know who is doing the choosing.   Presently the Cabinet Office has sole responsibility for drafting the legislation which will hold itself and all government departments to account.  This conflict of interests would have to be countered by close scrutiny and amendments as it passed through the House.   Except that the scrutiny committee can be controlled by the government through the Party Whips and the timing of debates is totally under their control as is the possibility of adding a number of ‘get out of jail free’ clauses at the last moment when attention is elsewhere.  Surely not Minister.  Oh yes Minister!

Essentially, with legislation under the control of the elected government and the judiciary chosen by political appointment, it’s game, set and match to the political elite. But this is how our democracy works.  We get to choose them once every five years and they get to choose everyone and everything else on our behalf.  That’s the deal.  This wouldn’t be a problem except for the democractic deficit which lurks on the wings of the political stage totally unacknowledged by government and media alike.

When a party can take power with just 36% of the vote it can hardly be said that it is a government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’.   With more than half of the parliamentary seats being ‘safe’ a vote for any other candidate is just a waste of effort.  This leads to voter apathy and a further entrenchment of the status quo.   democratic-deficit-in-the-uk  Your MP, despite their election promises, will vote according to the dictates of the Party Whip.  How is this democratic?  Lobbyists, who largely fund the party machines, still have undue influence over politicians and all done in secret when MPs do not have to reveal meetings recorded in their diaries.  whitehalls-secrets-to-be-revealed

E-petitions allow those who still believe in democracy to call for reform, but even with 100,000 signatures the Backbench Select Committee has the final say on whether to hold a debate in the house or not.  It is no surprise that there was not a parliamentary debate on the petition calling for a snap general election due to the revelation of David Cameron’s connection with tax avoidance in the Panama Papers. cameron-tax-haven-parliament  The point is, if we really live in a democracy should the voice of 163,275 people be so easily dismissed?  In 2013 over 300,000 people signed a petition to stop the proposed badger cull.  petitions/badger cull  An unprecedented number and due to a successful publicity campaign spearheaded by Brian May two debates were held in the House on this issue.  The campaigners won the first free vote, but lost the second when a three line whip was applied.  In any event, such a vote is not binding and the government can go ahead with whatever plan they have, simply shrugging off the will of the people.   This is our democracy in action.

So as the EU debate repeatedly calls for us to ‘take back control’ citizens should be asking, to what purpose?  The present government has a neo-liberal ideology which favours free market capitalism and helps to put more money into private hands by shrinking the size of the state.  Austerity has led to a prolonged public sector pay freeze, cuts to essential public services and reduced pensions.  The proposed move towards removing the UK from the Universal Human Rights Act will allow the government to control the human rights of UK citizens, for good or for ill and Brexit will cut the ties with European Directives which provide rights for workers.  No doubt even more of the cumbersome ‘red tape’ will be in the firing line.

The next big debate should be on parliamentary reform.  Long overdue and unlikely to be granted by any government in power.  Our paper-thin democracy is a sham and we the people should be the ones looking to  ‘take back control’.   Citizen power comes from uniting with a single voice in numbers which cannot be ignored, but for generations we have been fooled into fighting each other along the well-drawn lines of class, creed and colour.  The EU debate has been a classic example.  We fight each other, they rule with impunity.  That’s the state of the nation.