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Improving Democracy

What is democracy? What a question. I mean, c’mon, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Back in the days of the Greek empire, long before Rome became the dominant world player, the various Greek city states invented many different ways with which to exercise power. One of these was practiced in Athens when all the city’s male citizens went once a week to the town square to discuss what should be done to further the affairs of their state.

To decide which of many options to take up, citizens were asked to put their hands up when their favoured option was mentioned. Whichever subject got the most votes was adopted. This was the world’s first democracy.

Since then though things have changed. There are few countries as democratic as the original Greek example. After all, we only get to vote once every four or five years, and on issues maybe once every ten or twenty years, in a referendum.

Most Anglo-Saxon countries use the first past the post, winner takes all system of government.

In the UK system, if we’re lucky 70% of the eligible population actually turn up to vote. Of those, a winning vote comes usually if you get about 40% of the vote. This means the ruling party is supported by just 28% of the total eligible population or so. Sixty percent of those voting vote against the party that becomes the government – very democratic.

In the US system, apart from the fact that serving time in prison often removes your right to vote, they have adopted an “electoral college” kind of voting system in which it is actually possible for the person with the lowest votes to be declared the winner as happened in the Kerry-Bush 2 campaign.

Not all democracies are quite so unrepresentative of the will of the people. In Switzerland they vote using a much fairer system of Proportional Representation. In this, all parties who get votes over a specific percentage gain representation, which makes decisions more relevant to more people.

The Swiss government is controlled by four separate parties that together represent the views of over 80% of the people. In the UK the government is made up of one party which represents no more than 25% to 30% of the total voting-eligible population.

On top of that, the Swiss run a very devolved system of government. The whole country is made up of 26 Cantons, all of which have their own legal systems, laws and tax systems. Income taxes are collected and administered locally which means services and tax collection are so closely connected that taxes cannot rise too high and spending must be made efficiently – there is no anonymous civil servant hundreds of miles away to blame it on. Not only do tax rates vary from Canton to Canton, but also from village to village. Imagine being able to vote on what money should be raised in your own area, and having a say in how it is spent!

If you have a strong grievance in the UK, you write to your MP and maybe something will happen, but you won’t be able to set up a law off your own initiative. In Switzerland you can. Collect 50,000 signatures on a petition and you force a referendum to be held. If the referendum is successful, your initiative is added to the Swiss Constitution and becomes law.

Now, that’s what I call democracy! Wouldn’t you like that degree of control over your life? If you live in the UK or the US, you certainly don’t have it right now. I guess that’s obvious though: our politicians like being able to spend billions of our money on whims without us having any say in it. No wonder many young people are becoming disillusioned with life, and why many older people are becoming more cynical about the self-serving roles politicians play.

Isn’t it time for a change?

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One comment on “Improving Democracy

  1. Excellent delivery on what is not right about a winner-takes-all democracy. Only with full representation do we live in a real democracy, otherwise we only have half-a-say. Have a look at http://localparty.org for more info to see how systems shape the outcome (elitism, plutocracy, democracy, representation).

    If you live in the UK, US or France, you only get to have an ambassador as your representative (the majority picks a single person, very often a guy). In proportional democracies, close to all people get to select their actual and real representative; there is no competitive element as with district voting (only at the overall level some parties will indeed win, but not at the cost of other voters — only other parties).

    Full-representation is actually slightly weaker than two-party systems, so people should be aware of the devil-in-disguise of these winner-take-all democracies. Just think Reagan and Thatcher and how they hijacked the free world into their neo-conservative direction that actually helped their nations for quite a while, but that cut short the directions of the other nations to a great extent (the others had to follow US and UK’s ‘lead’ to stay in the economic game).

    I like it when there is also a prime-minister (of a coalition) and no president or and empowered king. These singular persons in top strengthen elitism (whether they like it themselves or not). The single most powerful person is more easily swayed (in whichever direction) than a prime-minister of a coalition who must keep multiple sides reasonably happy.

    Good job writing about the different forms of democracy; it is enlighting, it helps us get a better grip on our governments. And we should then see more people willing to change the system they live in to become more democratic.

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