Democracy, ICT and representation

I wrote these notes while sitting through a presentation by the Hansard Society on trying to increase engagement with the democratic process by using web/SMS-based tools… I know this reads like the musing of a first year politics student, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Here goes:

It is possible to see the century starting around 1880 as the period of the ascendancy of democracy in the UK. The period started with the introduction of universal male adult sufferage, and finished with the move to market-oriented consumerism under Margaret Thatcher and her successors, Tory and New Labour. How relevant is ‘democracy’ today? Put another way, now that socialism and organised labour has been smashed, why do the power elites need to bother with accommodating the masses?

To me, the underlying question is: who wields power in society? Certainly not the workers represented through trades unions who were let in after 1880 – it barely makes sense to talk of the Working Class any more, except as a cultural term. Now we only see competing business interests which are happy to fund any and all political parties. They don’t need votes to get their opinions heard, it’s all done by lobbying and marketing. Party ideology no longer determines political policy: proof enough is that the wealth gap has widened under Labout, and few of their ministers sees that as an issue.

Parliament and power

I can still see that Parliament and elections remain useful because they provide a mechanism for alternating the individuals in power and questioning those in power, tending to keep corruption under control – so long as corruption continues to be seen as a potential problem, not a business opportunity. Secondary benefits are scrutiny of new legislation; this function is more effectively carried out by extra-parliamentary groups from Greenpeace to Exxon.

And of course, Parliament provides a soap-opera and tool for keeping people informed at a basic level what’s going on. A symptom (probably not the cause) of the disengagement is the control over the agenda by centralised, proprietor owned media. Their interests are not served by engaging their audience in the political process. The political action that still matters is direct and extra-parliamentary. Look at anti-foxhunting, Live-8, anti-vivisection – the left wing/radical movement doesn’t use the party system any longer either. What matters is the media event: assassination could become a valuable campaign tool.

In support of my argument I can mention the restrictions of the area of democratic choice implied by human rights law (in the UK, the Human Rights Act and the ECJ), and free trade (the WTO). Not saying they’re bad things, just that they’re not democratic.

At the moment, I think we’re substituting democracy with a USAian model, consisting of ‘freedom’ (ie right for those with the resources to do what they want within a free market) and openness (the only bright spot is the increased culture of openness). Behind this is policy-setting through lobbying and the media backed by a security establishment that already has laws in place that make doing most things potentially illegal.

Conclusion and more questions
When I was writing all this, I didn’t consider the impact of the (locationless) internet and information and cummunication technologies generally, which is kind of ironic given where I work. They allow for accurage gauging and focussed involvement of selected citizens: another diminuition of the need/role of elected representatives.This then begs the question: what do I mean by democracy – is it meaningful to talk about democracy with no representatives?

Finally, I think it’s useful to remember how contingent is our version of democracy is. Women and black people only achieved suffreage across all of ‘The West’ in the second half of the 20th century. The concept of an enforceable absolute list of human rights was knocked together to give a retrospective legal basis for hanging some Nazis. Who knows what universal principles we’ll come up with in the next 100 years?

It’s been good putting together my worries about the future of democracy. Something to revisit.

I really neeed to read Coleman and Gøtze’s Bowling Together… written in 2001, it still looks relevant as a collection of arguments for optimism, even if the technology described may be out of date.

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About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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