A Question of Democracy

For voters weary of the Blair/Brown years, the 2010 elections were viewed with hope and the promise of a real sea change. Following the expenses scandal and the economic downturn of 2008, it was obvious that a complete transformation of the British political landscape was on the cards.

Several politicians, their legacies stained by corruption and scandal, had chosen not to contest their seats. Brown looked tired and defeated– Cameron was perfectly placed to seize control of a nation tired by lies, deceit and an economy in shambles. The arrival of Clegg threw a spanner into the works; the Liberal Democrats were, for the first time in a generation, suddenly seen as a viable alternative to the two dominant parties. For the impartial observer, it was a melting pot of promise.

Soon after the illusion was shattered, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats climbed into bed with each other and formed an arrangement that has been to the general dissatisfaction of supporters of both parties since. The Liberals lost out more heavily: for a party with nearly 7 million votes (Labour only earned 8 ½ million) they have consistently failed to carry out their manifesto in any meaningful way, conceding policy after policy to their larger coalition partner and gaining only meagre returns for the few victories they have won.

The story of the Lib Dem betrayal is a picture of the times. Voters across the spectrum were sold a vision of a brighter future that was never delivered upon. In difficult economic times it was supposed to be a time for the nation to come together and work towards a brighter future. With the exception of the Olympic summer, this hasn’t materialised in the slightest.

As the country settles into a second recession, it begs the question as to whether anything at all has changed for the better since the change in government. The country has lurched from one crisis to another: from the banking scandals to the Leveson Inquiry, from the tuition fees protests to the outcry over GCSE grading. Discontent is the order of the day; across the board voters are unhappy with the direction the country is headed. This came to a horrific climax last summer, when the England riots hit the capital and soon spawned copycat violence across the country. Opportunistic, maybe, but the evidence was there for many to see: too many people feel out of touch with our political classes.

Other reasons, closer to home, explain voter dissatisfaction. Real wages have fallen while the cost of living has risen. Recent statistics showing that house prices are once more on the rise further restricts customer-spending power. All are fundamental issues that our politicians seem unable to combat.

Essentially, the question must be asked as to whether the corridors of power are lined with the right people. As Cameron reshuffles the cabinet, replacing career politician with career politician, the changes seem uninspired to say the least. Why is Grayling better suited to the Justice Secretary role than Ken Clarke? Why, if Andrew Lansley was not the right man to reform the NHS, was he kept in the position long after he had proved he was not up to the task? It all smacks of an organisation where there is a dearth of talent to take on the challenging roles and make the tough decisions needed on a variety of levels.

And yet is there a solution that will bring back voters’ faith in our political system and, just as importantly, provide for a more efficient, effective government? Some people believe the answer lies in encouraging a wider range of talent to enter the world of politics. Democracy 2015, a new campaign being launched by former Independent editor Andreas Whittam Smith, argues that, “a political class has gradually emerged… [that is] fundamentally incompetent” and calls for far wider recruitment of those successful in other walks of life to challenge the current crop of politicians as a way to regain the trust of the voting population.

Others see the need for a larger-scale reform of the whole system. Take Back Parliament, a movement that is affiliated to a variety of other politically active organisations such as the NUS and Greenpeace, calls for a change in the first-past-the-post system, which it describes as “bust beyond repair”. Despite the setback of the AV referendum, where UK voters voted against a change, it still maintains that the only way forward for a fairer parliament that better represents interests of its people.

The answer is almost certainly that a combination of a fairer voting system and a new influx of people dedicated to changing the face of British politics would be a breath of fresh air to a weary, jaded populace. Whether either change is realistic is a different matter; arguably the British public may not care enough to give the level of general support required for such a huge undertaking to work. Despite the best efforts of some, it is likely that the political classes will continue to dominate parliament for some time to come.

Ben McCabe

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