The disaster of democracy

david cameron Ed clegg sad nigel

On Thursday morning I went to vote before going to work. I felt proud as I stood in the queue at the polling station; empowered by the chance to use my political agency to influence the future of my country; grateful to the suffragettes who fought and died 100 years ago to allow women, me, this opportunity.

On Friday morning I felt defeated. Most of the UK was shocked. The exit polls on Thursday night indicated a status quo – Conservative government with potential top up by the Liberal Democrats. By Friday morning it was clear that the Conservatives had an obvious majority. The vote counting finished on Friday afternoon with the Conservatives on 331 seats – a slim majority.

And so, I have a problem. And it’s not sulking that the party I voted for isn’t in government. My problem is the system.

Our electoral system is elitist and disenfranchising

First Past the Post (FPTP) is democratic by name, but not by nature. Here are a few statistics for you:  (see here for the stats in full)

  • In this election, more people in the UK voted against the Conservative government (63%) than for it (37%). Yet they will be government for the next 5 years.
  • Labour received 30% of the total number of votes (7% less than the Conservatives), but 100 less seats in parliament than the Conservatives.
  • The SNP received less than 5% of the national number of votes, yet received 9% of seats in parliament (56 seats).
  • The Lib Dems received 8% of the national number of votes yet only 2% of the seats (8 seats).
  • UKIP received 13% of the total number of votes (yes, seriously) but only 1 seat (for this I am grateful). In a proportional system they would have 82 seats.
  • Greens received 4% of the total number of votes, yet only 1 seat. In a proportional system, they would have 24 seats.

The benefits of FPTP is that radical minority groups (think UKIP or Greens) don’t get as many seats as votes. The system favours the elites – the bigger parties who have a broader geographic spread. The bigger parties are over-represented. The smaller parties are under-represented. The voters are disenfranchised because votes don’t equal seats.

Now for my analysis:

The polls influenced expectations – and got it SO wrong.
The polls, right up until the exit polls were announced, predicted a hung parliament. They predicted that Labour and Conservatives would end up neck and neck (in fact, some predicted Labour with a one point lead) and that the government was up for grabs.

The only article I’ve seen with the right prediction is this one (which is well worth a read if you’re interested). Why aren’t pollsters employing these types of people to work for them? And is anyone ever going to trust a political poll again?

Coalition governments – a chance for reform of the system
After 2010’s hung parliament, the polls predicted another coalition government. Despite the UK’s scepticism of coalition governments (apparently less ‘stable’), I think they’re great. Some of the most effectively run, happiest countries and highest in human development indicators in the world have coalition governments (think Germany and Scandinavia).

Another coalition government would have shown the UK electorate that they are not so scary and not less stable. They do involve compromise, but I would argue that is not a bad thing. Coalition governments provide the opportunity for smaller parties to be in government, changing its flavour. I think several electoral cycles with coalition governments would prepare the UK population for moving to a more proportional system in the future. Unfortunately, we’re back to the old one party rule.

Scotland is over-represented in the British parliament. Although it appears from the seats won that all of the entire Scottish population are SNP supporters, in reality, around 50% of Scots voted for SNP (similar to the number that voted yes in referendum!). Yet SNP won 56 of 59 Scottish seats. In a PR system, this just simply wouldn’t be the case.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m Scottish and am pleased for Scotland that they will have a stronger voice in an institution that has patronised them, marginalised them and taken them for granted for many years. This has been even more obvious since the sucking up to the Scots prior to the referendum, after which they’ve been duly shunned. The Scottish population is very different politically from the English (as are the Welsh population) and they feel disconnected from central government.

The Scottish got change for the better and will have a stronger voice in government; the rest of the UK however did not.

The end of the Labour party?
Labour needed their Scottish seats to be substantial competition to the Conservatives. They lost them and will struggle to regain them. Is this the end of ever having a ruling Labour government in the UK?

Overall, the UK is becoming more nationalist. In Scotland these votes are going to the SNP (left-wing nationalism), in England to UKIP (right-wing nationalism). I was shocked at the number of votes UKIP got. I knew the UK was changing – dispersing the value of tolerance that has been encouraged by politicians and communities alike – but the stats provide quantitative evidence.

I think nationalist votes (and feel free to disagree with me) are unruly votes – I think people feel like the main parties don’t represent them, and so they are casting for alternative parties. They may not agree with all of their policies, but they stand for change. And change is needed.

Bringing agency back to democracy
So there a systematic choice: A majority system that favours the elites and discriminates against minority groups (and ultimately results in an unrepresentative government). Or, a proportional system in which every single person’s vote counts; that represents minority groups and majority groups equally, but could result in radical groups having a larger say in the governance of the country.

Which would you prefer? Or is there still another alternative?
How does the ‘system’ create and inform unruly behaviour?
Is there such a thing as an unruly vote?
Where is the exercise of the unruly within the system?
Is there such a thing as an unruly political system? And if so, how do we make it happen?


Contention is dead. Long live politics

My development journey has been one of seeking justice. Trying to create change, transform society, have impact. To do this, I’ve had to act. So I am an activist. My first activist activity was being involved in the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign in Edinburgh in 2005.

Moreover, I was previously one of those activists that got paid to be an activist and encourage others in their activist activities – namely, speaking out about global inequality and injustice. I was a campaigner for a London based international development organisation which meant that I organised marches like this:

front of the wave

events like this…

tea time for change

…and stunts like this:

Robinhood Tax stunt in front of European Parliament, Brussels, 25th march 2010 RHT2

And, got to dress up in amazing outfits like this:

GB auto correct

Don’t judge – I was a climate justice superhero.

According to Tilly (2008), politics is by nature contentious. It involves a maker of a claim (me or you), a claim (poverty is unacceptable), and receivers of claims (the government or a mining organisation for example). It involves performances (see above – tick!) and repertories (see above – tick!).

Despite my love for dressing up and even better, being paid for it, I’ve always been a very orderly activist and taken part in very ruly voice-raising. I’ve organised very ruly gatherings of (thousands of) people ahead of large summits that have entailed very proper diplomatic negotiations.

And this is my conclusion – the claims are accurate and justifiable but the repertoires and performances are boring – and entirely institutionalised. A national march I helped organise on climate change was designed as a ‘family-friendly day’.

Where’s the contention in that?

Where in the polity is ‘the challenger’? (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, 2001)

As for impact, are these ‘ruly’ forms of collective action effective? I would argue no. Quite the opposite, they are sometimes appropriated by the state to support their policy. In other cases, just ignored, as demonstrated by the march on the Iraq war – one of the biggest failures of the UK government to represent their population.

The massive demonstration against war in Iraq, February 2003. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Part of me, and I probably shouldn’t admit this out loud let alone in writing, has respect for the people, the groups, who are willing to go the extra mile. Those who are willing to be arrested for a cause; die for a cause; know bare life may be the consequence of the cause and choose it nonetheless.

I’m not saying that contentious politics don’t exist entirely in the UK. The London riots, the Occupy movement, memorable stunts like Fathers for Justice climbing Parliament (one of my favourites):

And, times are changing. According to Badiou, the events of 2011 marked ‘The Rebirth of History’ and for Zikek, 2011 was ‘The Year of Dreaming Dangerously’. We have seen a rise in ‘unruly politics’ across the globe. There is no doubt that every day across the world, people jeopardise their safety in standing up against their oppressors, turning the law on it’s head. Or, shitting on the law, in the case of the new Indian land acquisition bill that’s being pushed through parliament.

But where are the ‘events’, the ‘ruptures’, in the nice, friendly world of development work?

Global poverty… How much do we actually care? What sacrifice are we willing to make for this cause? To what extent is the general (middle class) British population who join these ‘family-friendly’ marches willing to stand up against injustice? And what does the rebellion look like? Living in community, boycotting Amazon, recycling our lecture readings? Is that really enough?

I’m looking for something more. Acts, events, ruptures, that will make a government, an institution, an organisation, a bank, an entire industry, a country, sit up and listen.

I don’t have the solutions or the answers of how we do this… But there is one thing I’m clear on.

If we really care about doing something about poverty, about seeking social justice, we need to find the contention and bring it back into politics.

Tilly, McAdam and Tarrow (2001) Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tilly, C. (2008) ‘Claims as performances’, in Contentious Performances, Chapter 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press