It’s raining. I’m upstairs on the no. 49 to Clapham Junction in a humid breath fug. Two gents are sitting in front of me, “May 3rd. More bloody elections. Might as well move in to the voting booth I’m in there so often.”
“It’s bigger than most flats round here anyway.”
“And you get a free pencil.”
“I don’t understand why MPs can’t decide anything on their own without asking everybody to go and vote all the time.”
I groan slightly at the luxury of their Democrafatigue and they shut up. But I’m left with a couple of thoughts: Democracy’s clearly not getting the respect it used to and, it’s been over a hundred years since he was cited in the Court of Appeal but the man on the Clapham Omnibus/Routemaster is alive and well and reeking of Old Spice.
On the other hand, Democracy in the internet age seems much less robust.
For a start, the technology – a piece of paper, a pencil and a balsa wood booth – is centuries behind most other opinion collating mechanisms. According to the Office of National Statistics, “90% of men and 88% of women” and “virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years (99%)” are internet users. Compare that to the historic high voting booth user rate of just 68.8% in the last election.
Most of the UK has access to instant polling and voting on everything from a blue/gold dress to feeding celebrities live cockroaches and they attract more voters than your average election. More people know how to use Facebook than a voting slip. If we cherish democracy, rather than just give it lip service, and expect it to be relevant, we really need to help it adapt to modern life. For my university-aged kids, visiting a school hall with makeshift booths – that don’t even take whacky photos to upload to Instagram – is akin to entering some ancient church. You go there out of respect for an historical idea but everyone knows it’s barely fit for purpose when, in their pockets, they have the ability to instantly connect to the 65 million other people who live in the UK, to say nothing of the rest of the developed world.
You might think that the enforced slow speed of our pencil and paper democracy might encourage serious contemplation of the issues being voted on but, nowadays my opinion changes seven times before breakfast. I scroll through headlines on my phone before I get dressed, listen to the radio as I shave, and before the first oat hits the bottom of my bowl I’ve encountered countless arguments and I’m ready to voice my outrage, or support, for things I had no idea existed an hour before, let alone cared about.
The system has problems. Even back in its early days, when chaps with beards were still working out how to plague generations of schoolchildren with fiendish calculations for working out hypotenuses and other tangents, Plato spotted the fundamental flaw in democracy. “The insatiable desire of [freedom],” he says in his Republic, “introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. … When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them.” Democracy, Plato argues, naturally leads to tyranny unless democratic leaders are benign. He recognised democratic voters elect personalities not policies. We vote in our image. We vote for people. Which means that the policies of those with charisma, or sheer force of personality, always trump (forgive the pun) boring people with ideas of good governance. Democracy leads to populism, populism is a cult of personality and the ultimate personality is a demagogue, a tyrant, a dictator.
Democracy is one of humanity’s most sacred memes, even Popes get elected. It’s an idea that’s been around so long you’d have thought we would have a handle on it by now. Yet it remains so nebulous Wikipedia just says “No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.” Like ‘Art’ its lack of definition is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t dismantle it but we can’t enshrine it either. It’s anything we want it to be. A chore in Clapham, a liberation in Soweto. Whether it’s to elect another bunch of narcissists into Parliament or rip away our European citizenship, it can be both inane and profound.
On Thursday 3rd of May, on the face of it, all we’re doing is electing a bunch of faceless Council bureaucrats to oversee our parking permits and deny us planning permissions for our basements. But, in reality, this is the last official democratic opportunity to put our opinion to Parliament before Brexit.
It can’t be understated how important this local election is. If it doesn’t matter what colour of politics runs your rubbish collection, if you believe that British sense of decency and fair play means tolerance even of bally foreigners, if your life (like mine) only exists because immigrants were allowed to escape here from wartorn Europe, if you’re happy being a European, if you were born a European, if your family are European, if you have children who may need the work opportunities that a 27 country bloc can offer, if your property is losing value as London loses international significance, if you want the Troubles in Northern Ireland to never return, if you want the economy to turn around, if you want the focus of our politicians to go back to genuinely pressing domestic issues like the funding of the NHS… then only vote for a party that definitively supports a referendum on the final Brexit deal: Vote Lib Dem, Vote Green, Vote Renew, Vote Remain. Send a message and use democracy like it’s still in fashion.