The Case Against Representative Democracy

There is a strengthening case against our form of representative democracy. Recent events seem to highlight the fact that citizens do not feel especially well-served.  Also, being an MP seems an increasingly unattractive one for the representatives themselves.

Let’s start with the second point.  One of the issues emerging from the fiasco of the recent parliamentary debate on Gaza is that MPs feel genuinely concerned for their own welfare and that of their families. Protesters have targeted the homes of those they do not agree with and hate speech and death threats pour forth on social media platforms.

Jo Cox MP was murdered in 2016 by a white supremacist Sir David Amess MP was killed in 2021 by an Islamic extremist.  Apart from those MPs murdered due to the Irish situation, one would have to go back to 1812, when the previous MP was assassinated—Spencer Perceval, who was also Prime Minister.  We cannot draw a trend from two events, but one is left feeling that something has changed.    

UK politicians face exhausting schedules, often work late into the evening, suffer constant scrutiny into details of their private lives and job insecurity.  Some further indignities of being an MP are well-described by Rory Stewart in his book Politics on the Edge.  Given the above, it is hard to argue that MPs are lavishly paid.  A backbench MP earns £86,584 per annum, slightly below the starting salary of a London Business School MBA, and a fraction of what the median FTSE 250 CEO[1] earns (£1.8m).  Taken all together, this does not look like such a great job.

Conversely, citizens seem increasingly disillusioned with the work politicians conduct on their behalf.  Ipsos reported[2] that trust in politicians has reached its lowest level since the survey began in 1983.  According to the report, “Just nine per cent of the British public say they trust politicians to tell the truth, down from twelve per cent in 2022. This makes them the least trusted profession in Britain.”  Based upon interviews of voters in recent byelections, pundits and anecdotes there is little enthusiasm for politicians of any stripe (with perhaps those of the far right providing a worrying exception).

Isabel Hardman’s recent book, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, and many others, help us to understand some of the reasons that the “wrong” people often pop up as politicians.  Some of these also offer reforms to increase accountability, diversity, effectiveness or anything else we care about, but it seems worth asking, “why do we bother to have representatives in our democracies at all?”

We muse, misty-eyed, on historical examples of “real” democracy in action—Athenian democracy, where citizens (of a select type) would legislate, or the Icelandic “Althing”, where the entire nation would meet every few years to decide how to govern themselves.  Such idealised notions of highly participatory democracy can be sustained even to the time of Rousseau, who imagined this working in his hometown of Geneva, but for the large modern nation state this is unworkable.  Representatives of the people were needed to legislate on their behalf and in their interest.  In practical terms we could no longer all fit in the same assembly hall (or in one open field, as in Thingvellir, Iceland).

Such assemblies brought many advantages.  Aside from the practical benefits, for people such as James Madison, one of the “founding fathers” of US democracy, it would avoid mob rule.  The “great and the good” would assemble, debate, and govern wisely.  Certainly, during my childhood, it seemed as if only the “best and the brightest” emerged to become our national leaders.  I was very naïve!

Recent events make this position harder to uphold.  Perhaps it is the relative wage differential, or a host of other factors putting the “best” people off becoming elected officials?  Whatever the explanation, if we as a nation are so unsatisfied by how our “public servants” perform on our behalf, then we should feel motivated to change things—leaving aside whether we actually have the power or authority to effect such a change.

Jamie Susskind, in his insightful book, Future Politics, argues that there are many different ways we might choose to govern ourselves, and lists many tools we might deploy in doing so.  Dramatic advances in technology mean many of us can be in the same virtual room at the same time, and sophisticated technologies exist for managing deliberation with sizable groups.  Even if we cannot have all 60+ million Brits debating online, we do now have the ability to ask all citizens, regularly, about important policy questions.  Of course this could become tedious, but a shift towards recurring citizen interrogations (a la Switzerland), even if only consultative, would be a huge step forward.  The idea that democracy is realised by a vote every five years for a candidate of one of a half dozen parties that hardly enthuse is clearly undershooting our democratic potential.

Polly Curtis argues persuasively in the Financial Times[3], earlier this week, for more Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs).  These have been playing an increasingly important role in helping to solve thorny questions which politicians seem incapable of addressing or unwilling to address—like abortion legislation in Ireland.  These could play an even bigger role.  Anyone who has sat on a jury (I have) can see that a random selection of citizens frequently behave with far more dignity, and no less knowledge or intelligence, than our MPs.  Random groupings such as CAs and juries are also more reflective of the societies in which we live and partly for this reason may seem to have greater legitimacy.

As we consider the relative merits/demerits of representative democracy, we must also reflect on the risks in concentrating power in few hands.  The disadvantages seem to be increasing and raise questions about the ability of liberal democracies to sit alongside free-market capitalism.  In the US, the influence of money on politics is diabolical, a phenomenon which reached UK and European shores many years ago.  For powerful corporations, buying influence or favourable legislation, or killing unfavourable legislation, is a far more attractive use of capital than investing in plant and equipment, with a higher/more certain return.  This has led to the conviction that governments legislate for the rich and not in society’s best interest, supported by the growing concentrations of wealth.

Curtis articulates many of the important advantages of CAs, and how they help politicians and the public to work together in solving tricky problems.  CAs also enhance the legitimacy of decisions by making them more inclusive—they are carefully formed to reflect the relevant population—unlike Parliament.  However, Curtis adds that “CAs do not replace parliaments”.  But perhaps they should?  She also notes that they “should not allow politicians to swerve accountability”, which is a wholly fair point, and the need for accountability is one of the strongest arguments in favour of representative democracy.  However, an election every five years feels like accountability in the thinnest sense. 

I have no doubt that we are unlikely to see the end of representative democracy, or the abolition of parliaments in my lifetime or in the lifetimes of my children.  However, if we start from the premise that we can only tinker, we will fail to undertake the radical reforms which are necessary and now technologically possible.  Doing so is very much in the interest of citizens, but also may make the lives of politicians more enjoyable and ultimately safer.

[1] downloaded 27/2/24 at 17:23

[2] downloaded 27/2/24 at 17:29

[3] Financial Times, Monday 26 February 2024

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