Commission impossible

3 Mar 06
PETER WILBY | When I edited the New Statesman, I was rung by a former Labour minister who wished, he said, to write an article on the future of democracy.

When I edited the New Statesman, I was rung by a former Labour minister who wished, he said, to write an article on the future of democracy.

Could he be more specific? He replied that voters should, for example, get the right to call a referendum. So what, I asked, if people wanted a referendum on capital punishment and duly voted in favour of it?

There was a brief pause and a prolonged clearing of the throat. Well, said the former minister, the result of a referendum would not be binding on Parliament. MPs would naturally decline to act on the result.

I hasten to add that I am not in favour of capital punishment. But that compels me to admit that I am not always in favour of democracy. We all have our limits. President George W Bush wants to bring democracy to the Middle East. But if the Arabs vote for anti-American regimes that tell US firms to get the hell out, that’s the wrong kind of democracy.

I am all in favour of prime ministers listening to a million people who take to the streets against war in Iraq. If they pay the slightest heed to a different million people who march in favour of fox-hunting, I shall call it mob rule. An elected London mayor is a fine thing until he upsets a newspaper reporter with foolish remarks about concentration camp guards. Then he must be suspended, by unelected nonentities, for bringing his office into ‘disrepute’.

Now Helena Kennedy and Ferdinand Mount - the impeccably liberal-minded chair and vice-chair of the Power Commission, which reported this week - want to bring democracy to Britain. As Mahatma Gandhi might have said, this sounds like a good idea. But I suspect their enthusiasm would diminish if it failed to reach conclusions of which folk like them would approve.

There is nothing in the Power Commission report to which I would object, any more than I would object to a report that recommended sobriety and monogamy. A cap on the size of donations to political parties, an enhanced role for parliamentary select committees, the introduction of citizens’ panels, more tax-raising powers for local government and an elected House of Lords are all things I have myself advocated. Reading the report’s 311 earnest pages, however, I sense an elephant in the corner of the room.

The authors’ unexamined assumption is that politicians are very powerful and that the cause of voter apathy - a phenomenon that now affects just about every industrialised country - is the politicians’ failure to share that power. Is that true?

The real problem here is surely what economists call ‘opportunity cost’. For all the difference Westminster or the town hall makes to your life, is it really worth the trouble of trooping off to the polling station to cast your vote, never mind informing yourself of the issues or joining a party?

The state no longer provides essential services such as gas, electricity, water and telephones. To millions of people, it is no longer the main provider of a pension or even a dentist. It has ceased to play a significant role in prices, incomes, interest rates and credit availability. Although it has extended its reach over, for example, smokers, foxhunters, motorists and terrorism glorifiers, it has curtailed its activities in other areas of personal behaviour such as homosexuality.

If you do happen to get exercised by some aspect of state activity - the building of an airport near your home, for example - it is a more efficient use of your time to join a pressure group or demonstration on that particular issue than to join or vote for a party that might or might not respond to your concerns.

In any case, for most people, the local supermarket has a more important role in their lives than the local council, and the bank that provides their mortgage looms larger than the chancellor of the exchequer. No doubt politicians should regulate supermarkets and banks more closely, but there is no sign of them doing so. Often we are told that regulation is made impossible by some supranational agreement.

The big commercial concerns and the big investment institutions, such as pension funds, influence urban development, the countryside, food, the environment, housing and conditions in developing countries to a far greater extent than the government does.

That explains why consumer boycotts, for example, have grown so much in the past 30 years, with 17% now claiming to take part in them against 6% in 1974. The issue that now divides the country is not the Education Bill, but Tesco’s merits.

I welcome the Power Commission recommendations. They will make a difference but, I fear, only at the margin. Too many people have concluded that real power no longer lies with elected politicians.

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