Foundations of Democratic Accountability


Political debate often focuses on how leaders and representatives are chosen but to my mind, in a healthy society, it is the question of how and when they are removed which is paramount. In practice, if millions of people are electing a few hundred representatives, it's impossible for most of the electorate to have much real knowledge of the people they're choosing, and the outcome is primarily determined by the preliminary selection processes. In my view, most of us do not care very much exactly who governs us – we simply want them to do it well and honestly, and we want to be able to get rid of them relatively easily if they are incompetent or dishonest.

 What makes elections so important in our current system is not that they provide the opportunity to choose a government, but that they provide an opportunity to remove one. But it is a highly imperfect opportunity: whatever the interval is between elections it will be too short for the government to give its full attention to the job, and too long for the people to be properly sovereign.

To my mind, therefore, the primary requirement of a mature democratic political system is to allow the people control over the timing of change, and a system which effectively separates the dismissal of a government from the choosing of the next one will in fact allow much more flexibility in how officials and representatives are actually selected.

I believe therefore that, in a mature society, there must be an acknowledged mechanism whereby the public can spontaneously initiate a change in government at any level. I outline below a relatively simple proposal for achieving this.

An immediate objection that people routinely make to the idea of the public being able to spontaneously initiate a change in government is that it would make stable government impossible. I believe such objections are flawed for two reasons:

a) Firstly, one of the functions of a democratic constitution is to give people the government they (collectively) deserve; if the public is so fickle that they demand a new government every other week, then that's what they should get.

b) Secondly, the public would almost certainly develop a greater sense of responsibility (and a greater appreciation of the difficulties of government) than they have currently. In practice I would expect government to become more stable than it is at present.

People in government would find it easier to take a long view; they would know that they could lose power at any time but, once such a process was established, it would no longer be necessary to have fixed terms, so politicians would be freed from the tyranny of the electoral cycle.

There are a number of ways in which a mechanism for spontaneously initiating change might operate but the one I see as most promising already exists in embryo, and could be made manifest within the constitution with no significant disruption. It would also have the benefits of reinforcing the independence of the judiciary, and bringing into the heart of the constitution a treasured institution which has always been a thing apart: the jury.

As I see it, the essential function of jurors is to act as witnesses to the exercise of power. Through their complicity in a trial, the members of a jury confirm the public's acceptance of authority, and in principle they have the power to withhold that confirmation by insisting that the court demonstrate the source of its authority.

It would be a relatively simple matter to extend that process as the basis of a challenge to the monarch or any lesser central authority (i.e. the head of a local authority). If, say, a dozen different juries questioned the courts' authority, all within a short period of time, that might trigger a hearing in front of a constitutional jury, which might in turn trigger a remedial process of some kind; which might range from the impeachment of a minor official at one end to, at the other extreme, a referendum on dismissing the current monarch.

There are many ways in which this might work (and plenty of scope for disagreement over the details). In the longer term, I would expect the scope of the jury system to be expanded – for example, juries might be empanelled to witness the ratification of Acts of Parliament or, at a lower level, to witness local council decisions – but it would be relatively simple to introduce this reform in outline, simply by formally acknowledging the jury's power to demand proof of authority and establishing basic procedures to be followed if that should happen.

To summarise what I've written above: the key to democratic accountability is the principle that all positions of authority should be precarious; the people who occupy them should at all times be subject to dismissal without the public needing to engage in disruptive protests.

(The above is largely reproduced from a submission I made to the Commons Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform for their 'New Magna Carta' consultation.)

I believe that introducing a mechanism to enable the public to trigger the dismissal of its leaders would allow more flexibility in how those leaders are chosen, therefore that particular reform should take precedence over reforming the electoral process itself. But before attempting to reform electoral processes there is another factor which I think it would be wise to consider: the extent to which the failings of the existing system are the fault of the structure of Parliament rather than the electoral processes themselves.

As individuals, we all act and speak from a variety of motives, and our actions and words are not always consistent with each other. We have many opportunities in our daily lives to reconcile those inconsistencies but, in our capacity as parts of a greater whole, we can only do so if we are represented in a variety of different ways. I see three ways in which the existing constitution prevents that:

  1. A lot of the dissatisfaction people feel with the first-past-the-post system stems from its failure to provide proper representation for those who support smaller parties. In my view, the reason politics is dominated by party considerations is that there is a fundamental polarity in the functions of government, which is not properly represented in the structure of its institutions. From that perspective, I consider that any electoral reform which entrenches the role of political parties would be a serious mistake. As I see it, left and right parties tend to favour different areas of policy – welfare on the left, and law and order on the right, for example – and, for the most part, those different areas compete with each other for resources but don't actively conflict with each other. It seems to me, however, that they do need different mindsets and as long as our processes for choosing leaders lumps all the functions of government together we have no hope of a system which is both stable and properly representative. (I say more about this in a contribution to the Parliament section: )

  2. The kind of rational decision-making that lies behind a conscious decision to vote for one person rather than another is very different both from the visceral self-interest which drives much of our activity and from the dictates of conscience and convention which regularly constrain us. Because the Executive and the Legislature are so entangled in our existing constitution we are forced to elevate one set of impulses over the others. A properly constituted society would allow us to vote ideologically for the representatives who speak for us, and pragmatically for the representatives who act for us. (I say more about this in a contribution to the Government section: )

  3. To my mind, the convention that central government is always sovereign over local government is a serious failing of our present system. It undoubtedly needs to be, in some spheres, at some times, but a truly representative system should be capable of reflecting the fact that, just as our priorities shift in regard to which functions of government are more important, they also shift in regard to different levels of government. (I say more about this in a contribution to the Devolution section: )

In my opinion, elections are only really effective at the very local level, where people are able to properly engage with the people they are electing and with their fellow electors (and I consider that, within fairly broad parameters, the details of how local elections are conducted should not be prescribed by higher levels of government). Elections are fundamentally important at the local level but, at higher levels, I regard them as an expensive distraction from what gives substance to our lives, a distraction which is intrinsically incapable of providing anything more than a crude form of democratic accountability.

The larger the constituency, the harder it is for the electorate to judge between candidates, the harder it is for the candidates to give the electorate a truthful image of themselves, and the harder it is for the electorate to engage in meaningful debate about which issues are important. In practice, elections become dominated by noise, and most potential candidates and issues are eliminated by preliminary selection processes and constraints.

I believe that a healthy, well-constituted society should be able to function without requiring the public at large to choose its leaders. To my mind, the fact that large-scale elections are regarded as so important in our current system is a measure of how inadequate it is.


edited on Feb 27, 2015 by Malcolm Ramsay
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