Sunday 16 March 2008

Liberals and democracy

So sorry to see the Lib Dems have caught the disease of populism, and ill-thought-out populism to boot. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's idea of reducing the number of MPs (BBC News: Clegg wants to see 150 fewer MPs), while popular (understandable considering the abuses of expenses etc), would have a detrimental effect on the number of elected representatives (while still leaving the unelected holders of power, ie the bosses and bureaucrats, in place).

Some of the ideas of the Lib Dems I can support, such as acap on individual donations to parties, and proportional representation (I personally like the Eireann PR system, based on Single Transferrable Vote). Yet, even with PR, the representation of minority parties (such as Respect and the Greens) would be adversely affected if the number of MPs was reduced - thereby increasing the percentage of the vote needed by a party to pass the threshold at which a member could be chosen from the party list.

I also think his idea of asking people who go to vote, if they want the state to make a £3 donation to their chosen party, is flawed. It's bad enough being accosted by credit card salespeople in shopping centres and motorway service stations, and being phoned to ask you if you'd like insurance / double glazing / to take part in a "survey", without being subjected to intrusive questioning at the ballot box!

But enough of what I don't want ... here's a few suggestions of my own, for reforms which I think should be made to parliament and the voting system:

Firstly, if we really must save money on democratic rule, a good start would be to reduce the wages and expenses of MPs - to that of the average worker (approx £25,000 per year and the cost of renting a 'cheap and cheerful' flat or B&B). This would also make MPs have more experience of the lives of working class voters, who elected them in the first place!

Next, a severe cap on individual donations to parties, to stop rich capitalists buying political influence. And democratisation of the political funds of all trade unions, so union members can decide where their unions' (indirectly their own!) money is donated, rather than it going automatically to the Labour Party (as is currently the case in too many unions).

The voting age should be lowered to 13. Already, some reformist politicians, even in the main parties, have expressed an interest in the lowering of the voting age to 16. This is welcome, but it doesn't go far enough. It is debatable whether we really need a voting age at all, and certainly teenagers have shown - contrary to assertations by the Establishment - that they do have political understanding; back in 2003, many school students walked out of classes to take part in anti-war demos when the Iraq war started. Besides, reducing the voting age would stop teenagers being seen as a 'soft target' for repressive legislation!

All people with disabilities should be allowed to vote, and any legislation preventing this should be immediately repealed. In addition, all measures should be taken to make sure that people with disabilities are able to vote. Such as accessible polling stations, ballot cards in Braille, and state-provided transport to polling stations on election day.

The law banning prisoners from voting should also be repealed; in addition to the glut of laws which potentially carry a jail sentence, many are already jailed for petty offences already (many people, especially women, are in jail for not paying fines, including fines given for not having a TV licence or defaulting on poll tax payments). And, as the Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four will tell you, miscarriages of justice do occur!

Yet even these measures will not give workers full power. The real power lies largely in the hands of rich capitalists in the boardrooms of big business, and with unelected bureaucrats (notably the heads of the Police and Armed Forces) who do the capitalists' bidding. Yet it can just as easily lie with working class people; a strike can deprive the bosses of protits, and make them give concessions to their workers. And when it comes to influencing decisions by the Establishment, one large demonstration is worth more than a thousand mealy-mouthed speeches by MPs.

As the chant went on yesterday's Stop The War demonstration in London: "This is what democracy looks like!"

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