Is British Democracy dying?

"Recourse available to members of society when politicians are deliberately misleading is astonishingly limited"

Democracy is a system of government in which the power to make decisions affecting society sits with the people who make up that society. A natural consequence of this should be the realisation of, what the majority of the society deems, to be civic and political rights. In British society these rights are said to be, among many others; freedom of access to information, freedom of the media, proper political representation and a reduction in economic inequality.

The British Parliamentary model of democracy has long been touted as the most efficient way to govern a society. It is considered to be more practical for governance than its European and American counterparts; producing majority governments that can easily legislate for ideological policies, while still enshrining rights and sustaining economic growth that has resulted in improved living standards.

Yet as my generation grows older, there are serious questions that need to be asked about how well the current model of democracy is serving modern day Britain.

Free access – but to what information?

In a healthy democracy members of society should be free to access factual information and hear a wide variety of perspectives. This freedom lends confidence to democratic processes, such as the outcomes of election, referenda and political decision making.

Traditionally this freedom has been exercised by listening to the daily news bulletin or by reading a newspaper. And so, the media should act as a means of scrutiny to those who hold power over society; reporting on developments locally, nationally and globally when in the public interest. But the ability of the British press to adequately facilitate the exercise of this right is more than debatable.

The British media has an exceptionally concentrated ownership structure; with 6 billionaires owning or controlling majority shares in all national newspapers. The journalist and reporter base of these outlets often consists of individuals from wealthy backgrounds with private education; commonly having been educated alongside those who make decisions that impact society.

It is fairly uncontroversial to say these factors influence what ends up on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Frequently they result in a distortion of facts, through the language used when reporting on political developments. Sometimes they result in ignorance of stories in the public interest. And this warps the informational basis that members of society draw on to exercise their right to political representation.

The consequences of this are increasing numbers of British society becoming suspicious of traditional media outlets. The phone hacking scandal, the lack of regulation in the sector, corporate advertising revenues and well publicised apologies have fed these suspicions. Whether these suspicions are justified or not, it is unhealthy for a democracy to have such little diversity in media make up and for public trust in media outlets to be eroding.

This is leading to growing numbers of people using the internet to gather information and news. Society should be free to access online platforms and the content on them, but they are susceptible to manipulation and fake news, as well as being guilty of creating echo chambers.

The content that appears on social media platforms is not fact-checked prior to publication. This has led to an environment in which untrue and damaging stories can be spread to millions of people.

Combine this with the data these platforms harvest, and the companies we now know exist such as Cambridge Analytica, and this paints a nasty picture of content being created regardless of its factual truth, and directly targeted at large numbers of identified individuals to influence their right to choose political representation. This picture becomes darker again when you consider the algorithms deployed by these platforms. They create bubbles through which gets only the content that the platform has identified as corresponding to the user’s specific likes, dislikes and opinions.

Much of this has contributed to the phenomena of “fake news”; something which has led to many people feeling justified in distrusting or being sceptical of the information they see on any platform. And this in turns erodes the confidence that society as a whole has in democratic processes, by creating space for undue doubt around outcomes. Evidently solutions are required to ensure society has confidence in its ability to recognise “fake news”, and to ensure that phenomena does not become more problematic for the current model of democracy.

Politically represented – but who’s in charge?

At the core of British democracy is the right of citizens to choose political representation, and to hold those whom they elect to office to account for their decision making. This is what puts power in the hands of the people. But whether or not the current British model is successful at truly providing those outcomes is debatable.

The “First Past The Post” voting system quite often results in political representatives that the majority of constituents did not vote for. This flaw is best exposed through the DUP, with less than 1% of the vote, claiming 9 seats more than The Green Party, who have more than 1.5% of the vote. Women and minority groups are also significantly underrepresented in all British political structures.

Recourse available to members of society when politicians are deliberately misleading is astonishingly limited. For example, consider the various figures Conservative politicians regurgitate on public sector employment, housing and healthcare. Despite multiple reputable organisations saying the figures are misleading, there seems to be no recourse for the public to prevent their continued use. Of course we would expect the media to perform this function, but the limitations preventing them from doing so has already been explored.

The actual impact of these on legislative and policy outcomes is debatable, but it does feed the narrative that the current model does not effectively allow citizens to create real change. And today, more so than at any point in my generation, this narrative is being fed by the model’s failure to produce decisions and policies that provide for an equal society. Britain is no longer experiencing a reduction in economic inequality, with the wealth gap growing so much over the last decade, that the richest one thousand individuals now have more wealth than the bottom 40%.

This inequality is manifesting itself in increasingly visible differences in living standards. The number of people struggling to provide themselves food and essential items has increased exponentially, evidenced by increasing numbers using foodbanks and relying on emergency parcels. Homelessness has soared in Britain, with the streets of England now having 73% more people sleeping on them than 3 years ago. And young people do not have the same opportunities than the generations before.

Home ownership for under 35s has plummeted with less than 35% of us owning our own home, compared to over 75% of over 65s. A third of my generation face renting for our entire lives in a market that charges us extortionate prices for often sub-standard properties. University courses are no longer free, and are very arguably so expensive as to not provide value for money. Competition to get well-paying jobs, particularly jobs requiring university education, is exceptionally high. And the internships needed to secure these jobs are often unpaid and exclusionary of those from low income backgrounds.

The statistics above barely scratch the surface of inequality in modern day Britain, but they give an understanding as to why public confidence in our current model of democracy is beginning to falter. We must start to reconsider how we can better protect the desired outcomes of our democracy, and to begin to identify possible changes to our democratic model that would enable confidence to be rebuilt.

Alana Finn is a Young Fabian Member

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