Democracy is a means, not an end

We have retained an electoral system that means that we can fire governments. We should also exercise due diligence when hiring them

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Bemoaning doom and gloom around Westminster is no good if you didn't vote
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Peter Botting
On 15 May 2012 11:39

So Grexit is a new word. Italy is run by a bureaucrat. Ireland is arguably run from Frankfurt. Spain is wobbly.

In all these countries the Euro was welcomed - and is generally still favoured over its national predecessors. Not just by the politicians but by the people.

And like directors of banks, the politicians are the only bad guys. And the people of those countries are the victims.

But seriously, are the bank bosses really to blame? Are the politicians in Greece really to blame?

Are we as voters and shareholders not equally culpable? Or maybe we even carry more of the guilt?

We say we are democracies, but, we either vote tribally or we don’t bother. Six out of 10 vote in national elections. Three out of 10 vote in local elections. I have heard someone saying that less than one in 10 will vote for Police and Crime Commissioners. But ask in any pub and you will hear that politicians are all the same. That politicians are useless and lazy and generally to blame for everything.

One of the questions I ask potential parliamentary candidates is whether they think MPs should be representatives or delegates. The answer is (almost) always, "representatives". 

But is this being a representative of a vague set of beliefs or representing a majority in favour of a manifesto. If we are just sending people who we are sure will “do the right thing when they get there” - surely they are delegates?

And if politicians think they are representatives rather than delegates - surely we, as voters, should be more active in scrutinising manifestos and pledges. Surely we should make sure that the tribal representatives put forward manifestos that fit that tribe.

Or are we all just happy to delegate our authority and then moan about it afterwards?

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government."

I could not agree more.

But we as voters have to exert that authority. We are all in possession of full voting shares. If you think that bank bosses have been taking the mickey - what about the bank’s shareholders who do not go to the AGM or those who do go and, either through ignorance or holding their nose, give permission, a yes vote, a mandate for another year? They are the ones who have delegated authority. Surely they are at fault too?

Aviva shareholders effectively fired Chief Executive Andrew Moss last week. That is accountability. That is using the mandate. That is voters using their vote.

The problem has been made more complicated because messages have become mixed and people generally prefer the bird in the hand to those in the future bush.

Politicians used to have this basic message: Save/invest/build/cut costs NOW and we will have jam TOMORROW (insert favoured noun- new cars, new kitchens, peace, reunified Germany).

Then came the credit card politics - buy NOW, pay (maybe) later. Politicians started promising spending now rather than a later dream that had to be saved for or invested in.

And then came 'oops'. The credit cards stopped working and the nasty phone calls started coming. Weaning a nation off hire purchase and persuading them that the two golden rules (you only borrow to invest and debt must be sustainable) was never going to be easy.

Politicians love elections when people feel good, have loads of money and well paid jobs. But that confuses working for the country with working for votes.

Who wants austerity? No one. But national austerity at the moment simply means paying your bills - and being able to keep paying them. Cutting your cloth and all that.

In Switzerland, all around the country, spirited policy and manifesto discussions burn like bush fires in pubs and at dining room tables. Party politics plays a role - but the manifestos are generally centre stage. Can you remember now the top five points of the manifesto of the party or the candidate that you last voted for?

If you were buying a company you would do extensive due diligence. If you owned a company, you would go and see how the manager was managing it. You would want and give regular feedback. You wouldn’t just delegate the authority and then disappear for five years. Or 10. 

And if you found out that the company was paying you huge and unsustainable dividends with borrowed money, what would you do? According to the European Central Bank, 19 EU countries have unfunded pension liabilities for their existing citizens of €30 trillion ($38.7 trillion). France has unfunded liabilities of €6.7 trillion. Yet Francois Hollande triumphed promising to cut the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers. That doesn’t make sense. Unless you are coming up to retirement soon!

Maybe the lesson that the whole world can and should learn from Europe, and Aviva, is this:

Elections are not enough. Calling your country a democracy is not enough. Having politicians there to blame is not enough. Voters have a responsibility too.

If you are lucky enough to live in a country that has elections, you should vote in those elections. And you should look at manifestos and pledges just as closely as you look at tribal badges. And we should also all remember what Thatcher said about national finances being no different from those of a family. Debt can be good for some things - but not for consumption. You cannot spend more than you earn for ever.

We have retained an electoral system that means that we can fire governments. We should also exercise due diligence when hiring them. 

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to theNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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