February 17
Is our democracy breaking down? The speakers were Jonathan Lord, MP for Woking, and Alex Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy, which campaigns for voting reform, transparent and accountable government, and including women and young people in our political system Alex opened the debate. We have a franchise and regular elections. So far, so good. Yet democracy should be a process not an event. The Hansard Society finds that only 32% of the population feel that if people like themselves get involved in politics they can change the way things happen. What people really want is not reflected in the political parties concerns. There is no cap on donations to political parties and with money comes influence. £39million was spent on the last election by the parties’ campaigns and the Conservatives received more money from one donor than from all their membership fees combined in the year before the 2015 election. For the Conservatives £50,000 can buy a meal with government ministers. For Labour £5,000 is the going price. The biggest single donation to a political party was £5million to the Conservatives. "If you are not around the table then you are on the menu". There is a £2billion lobbying industry in the UK. This cash is hijacking the political debate. Their tactics have become highly sophisticated using astroturfing, flooding the Internet with fake grass roots support in the form of blogs, tweets and comments. The supposedly independent pro NHS privatisation campaign, Doctors for Reform was set up by a lobbying group, Westbourne Communications and refuses to reveal the campaign's funders. "Drip by drip the messages put forward by so-called independent consumer groups and the policy positions developed by so-called independent research, makes its way into the national policy discourse, and into the agenda of ministers and MPs alike." As we prepare to leave Europe and "take back control" it is important that these lobbying groups do not set the agenda. Who you know matters and we need to know the driving forces behind policy making. It is vital that politics works for people and is not done to us. We need a codified constitution written by and for the people that is fit for a modern democracy. Jonathan Lord, MP for Woking, had just come from a photo session for the Conservative candidates in the local government elections and they were people from all walks of life, he said. The General Election confounded the experts with Mrs May going into the election with a lead of over 20% and the question being how big a majority she would get. She had a policy more sceptical about Thatcherite policies than any Conservative leader for a long time. Although £39million was spent on the election this is only about as much as is spent on one senate seat in the USA. Politicians and government ministers make themselves more available to the general public than in most democracies. £50,000 does buy a meeting with the leaders of the Conservative party and they will be listened to but are often ignored. The unions influence Labour more directly than does big business the Conservatives. There would never have been a referendum on Brexit if the government had listened to big business but it was pressure from UKIP and the votes they got that secured the referendum. A party does not get into power at Westminster unless that party is a broad coalition of interests. Social media has two problems. People can live in their own bubble. If you were young the news feeds you were directed to before the election were Labour and Momentum supporting. They en-courage a coarsening and personalising in the debate and anonymity worsens this. He thought big money is not so much of a problem. As an MP, he gets information and annual re-ports from companies but more from campaigning organisations, charities and unions. Our unwritten constitution is more flexible than a written constitution can be. He is not however against the idea of political parties being funded out of taxation. Questioned on age limits for voting neither speaker was for an upper age limit. On lowering the voting age to 16 as in the Scottish referendum Jonathan was unsure but convinced that we should not have lowered the age for the vote on Brexit and kept it at 18 for other elections. Alex argued we should lower the age
Alex Runswick, debate chair Ruth Breddal and Jonathan Lord during the debate.
A member of the audience makes some points to the speakers.
Alex Runswick makes her opening address. to 16 but our main focus needs to be on increasing the number of people who vote. On proportional representation, Jonathan pointed out that we had a referendum on this issue and it was clearly lost after the public had a chance to consider the arguments. Alex argued that the alternative in the referendum was not great and there are better more democratic forms of PR than the one we voted on. Jonathan quoted the case of Malta which has STV but did not result in the parties with the most votes constituting the government but yet thought STV was the best alternative voting system. He still favours the first past the post system we have which is clear and where the elected representative is directly responsible to the voters and can be voted out. We can "chuck the rascals out". Alex thought our system is admirable but we have to show that voting matters. In local authorities contracts for ten years to private companies limits the scope of local government. Past the post is simple but was designed for an illiterate age. We should be able to feel that we are taking part in a process where can make a difference but in Surrey being part of Labour destines one to limited influence. In the 1997 election UKIP received 4 million votes but had not one MP. A member of the audience reminded us of the problems in countries with PR – Spain, Italy and Germany. Both speakers emphasised the importance of an independent judiciary and neither were in favour of voting being made compulsory. In Australia where voting is compulsory it has not increased voting in local elections where voting is voluntary and many young people have just not registered to vote and therefore face no penalty. Other ways are needed to engage people with the electoral system. All were in favour of equal sizes of constituencies with the proviso that there needs to be some latitude to make sure communities are not artificially divided up. ID checks for the upcoming local elections in Woking were welcomed but it does not deal with the problem of postal voting. Career politicians were welcomed more by Alex than by Jonathan. On being asked What would best improve democracy in Woking? The answer came more people coming out to vote. It was a thoughtful positive debate with over 50 people attending, and well chaired by Ruth Breddal.