Three Strategies for Destroying Democracy: David Cameron’s legacy

This might seem like a strange time to start talking about David Cameron’s legacy. With the general election less than a year ago, it’s possible that much of what we remember him for is yet to come. But given the rumours of a snap election whatever the result of June’s EU referendum, we should take advantage of this calm before the storm to look back. There are many competing narratives around Cameron’s premiership – austerity, Scottish independence thwarted, privatisation, recession – but one political project is present throughout his time in office: the destruction of participatory democracy.

1. Electioneering

Changing the process of electoral registration to one where individuals register themselves (instead of being registered as a household) makes a lot of sense in the abstract. But the change has led to 800,000 people dropping out of the electoral system, with people living in inner-cities and students most likely to be disenfranchised. Although this will probably be a short-term dip in numbers (registers are open until three weeks before an election – so if that 800,000 includes you, there is still time!), forthcoming changes to electoral boundaries will be based on this initial list. Because this missing million voters are concentrated in Labour-voting areas, when the constituency boundaries are redrawn we may end up artificially inflating the number of Tory seats without a single vote being cast. Although this is a worrying development for those on the left, it is true that historically the Labour party has benefitted from electoral boundaries that gave them many seats with very few voters in them (those Scottish seats now vote SNP). New Labour’s unwillingness to address this during 13 years in office shows that this is part of an endemic culture of electioneering in British politics.

2. Bypassing Parliament

Long before the 2010 general election, power has steadily been shifting from the legislature (the House of Commons and the Lords) to the executive (the government, made up of the Prime Minister and Cabinet). In Britain this separation of powers has always been fairly complex and ad hoc, but the basic idea is that government executes laws and policies, while Parliament analyses their actions and debates legislation. However, since at least the 1970s there have been growing fears that Parliament is unable to properly scrutinise the government. Under David Cameron, this trend has reached a tipping point.

One of the surest methods of limiting Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account is to cut the opposition party’s funds. The Tories have gone about this in two ways. First, they plan to cut the public funding given to all parties represented in parliament – so called ‘Short Money’ – by at least 10%. This will have a significant effect on Labour and the SNP, as well as smaller parties like The Greens. Second, the Trade Union Bill – currently stalled by the House of Lords – could cost Labour as much as £8 million a year by changing union members contribution to the party from opt-out to opt-in. The result of these reforms is an opposition that’s stretched for basic resources. In the run-up to 2020, Labour may well experience a funding crisis, impacting not just on their ability to win an election but their ability to challenge the government effectively.

Other methods for paralysing parliament are more covert. £650m was just cut from the supposedly ‘ring-fenced’ NHS through changes to the small print of public sector pensions included in the last budget. It’s also become common for the Tories to pass laws through arcane and opaque methods, keeping controversial policies away from the House of Commons for as long as possible. Many of these have gone through as ‘statutory instruments’: secondary legislation ‘which allow the provisions of an Act of Parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without Parliament having to pass a new Act’, conveniently avoiding the full scrutiny that a normal bill would face. In a similar fashion they scrapped student maintenance grants through a ‘third delegated legislation committee’, bypassing the main chamber of the House of Commons entirely. They also introduced English Votes for English Laws without an Act of Parliament.

The most telling example of this procedural trickery is the row over tax credits. George Osborne’s proposed cuts were presented to the House of Commons as a statutory instrument, but the House of Lords then rebelled, demanding that the Commons consider the matter more thoroughly. In retribution the government threatened a punitive reduction in the powers of the Lords. They also sneaked through another statutory instrument that proposed a reduction in the ‘income-rise disregard’ for tax credits, effectively cutting tax credits for 800,000 people.

3. Democratic participation ends at the ballot box

The third strategy stems from the Conservative’s narrow conception of what democracy means. Attacks on trade unions, gagging orders for charities and universities, and a ban on boycotts by public bodies are all part of a general attempt to silence civil society and reduce popular participation in politics. For the Tories, democracy begins and ends with the ballot box. Attempts to involve people in making political decisions in their everyday lives, like deciding whether they want their pension funds being invested in bomb factories or companies owned by corrupt dictators, are seen as mindlessly disruptive and ‘bad for business’.

Tory democracy is clearly opposed to active participation in politics. But even its ‘representative’ element is limited and out-dated. George Osborne seems to prefer Edmund Burke’s 18th century model of ‘trustees’, where elected officials use their judgement to decide what is in our ‘long-term interests’ (even lying to us when necessary). The sole point of democracy is, therefore, to empower our trusted rulers. On this definition, the idea that trade unions might exercise democratic control in the workplace is nonsensical. That’s why the Tories are impervious to the criticism of double standards. Even when they argue trade unions should need to win the votes of 40% of their membership before going on strike while their own government was elected by less than 25% of the total population: the Conservative party is involved in democratic politics, trade unions aren’t. It also explains why the Tories refused to allow trade unions to modernise and hold online or workplace ballots (techniques used by the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Magistrates’ Association, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Conservative Party). Their aim is not to increase democratic participation in unions, but rather to shut down troublesome and disruptive institutions that are not part of real democracy anyway.

The same goes for proposals to forbid charities, NGOs or universities that accept public money from proposing policy changes. It seems perverse for the government to dismiss valuable academic research as ‘lobbying’ when they have actively encouraged corporate lobbying. Early in Cameron’s premiership he set up a ‘liaison committee’ giving representatives from Tesco, AstraZeneca, Santander, BP and others a direct say in how corporate tax rules are written (as if they needed more help in avoiding tax). The government’s Green Paper on Higher Education proposed establishing an Office for Students, which would give business a formal role in shaping the future of universities. The Prime Minister long ago gave CEOs of the UK’s top 50 companies hotlines to relevant ministers. But again, this hypocrisy makes sense when you remember that meddlesome civil society is largely irrelevant to Tory ‘democracy’ and the grander project of nurturing big business.

These three strategies represent a total dismissal of civil society, of the idea that it should give people a say in how their lives are managed by the state, of the notion that ‘the personal is political and the political is personal’. Richard Holloway, a Conservative Westminster Councillor, is a minor figure in the party but he summed up the collective attitude well when he tweeted about an anti-austerity march last summer: ‘You go ahead and wave your banners. The grown ups will get on with running the country’.

—Matteo Tiratelli


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