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Archive for the ‘Democracy and participation’ Category

More equal than others

Posted by Matt Walker on March 25, 2012

In a liberal democracy political equality is essential. As a citizen of the UK, I would expect to influence government no more than alternative voices, and hope that government would be even-handed when mediating between different interests, choosing policy positions on a rational, logical, and evidential basis. If this were not the case, then some people or organisations could influence government to make decisions in their own favour, at the expense of others who lack access to government circles.

And so this morning’s news about Conservative Party co-treasurer, Peter Cruddas, does not make for comfortable reading. I should say “ex-co-treasurer” as he has already resigned. Cruddas has been caught by a Sunday Times ‘sting’,  videoed saying that a £250,000 donation to the Conservative Party would gain people access to the prime minister, as well as get their concerns on a Downing Street policy committee.

The Conservative Party has denied accepting money on this basis, and Cruddas has suggested he was merely exaggerating the influence donors could have over government policy. No doubt more information will emerge over the coming days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sunday Times has other revelations up its sleeve. To some extent, this is nothing new. The Bernie Ecclestone Affair over donations to Labour in the 1990s jolted Tony Blair for a while, and Michael Crick produced a wonderful piece for the Channel 4 News about business donors at the 2010 Liberal democrat Conference. Such unsavoury happenings occur because  political parties need to raise huge funds for their campaigns.

This latest scandal will only consume the government if it is proven that senior Tories have been accepting donations for direct influence over government policy. But it has once again highlighted some of the weaknesses within our democracy, and to echo a phrase George Orwell used in Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others.

Peter Cruddas

David Miliband

BBC News article


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What is a liberal democracy? Not Russia!

Posted by Matt Walker on March 6, 2012

Right at the beginning of the AS course we discussed democracy, and asked the question: ‘Is Britain a liberal democracy?’. To explore this we need a benchmark, some definition of ‘liberal democracy’ which British democracy can be compared to. We would expect a liberal democracy to have the following features:

  • government accountable to the people.
  • competitive, unpredictable and fair elections.
  • peaceful transference of power from one group to another, with the losers accepting defeat.
  • free flow of information, with regulated media to ensure fairness of political coverage.
  • protection of rights and civil  liberties.

It is worth you pondering why all of these things are important, and it might help you to observe what is happening in Russia. Vladamir Putin has just been elected president. He served two terms of office from 1999 to 2008, but stepped down because the Russian constitution states that a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms of office. Putin could now serve another two terms, lasting 6 years each as the length term has recently been raised.

Aside from the issue of whether Putin actually controlled Russia anyway during the past 4 years (as prime minister), there has been much criticism of this latest Russian presidential election. Election monitors have said that the vote was skewed in favour of Putin. There has been accusations of vote-rigging, with video footage of election officials stuffing ballot boxes with forged voting slips, as well as reports of people being bussed around more than one voting station to cast multiple votes for Putin. The Russian media is also biased in favour of Putin, with Russian state television supporting him. And furthermore, if we look at Putin’s presidential rivals, it is hard to contend that this was a competitive election.

The result of this election was predictable, and not particularly well run legally. The lack of media transparency as well as the number of arrests of protesters since the election, would make it very difficult for us to describe Russia as a liberal democracy!

See also David Miliband’s views on this.

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Turnout at local, national and European elections

Posted by Matt Walker on October 8, 2011

As discussed elsewhere, voter turnout is an important indicator of levels of political participation. The most obvious example of this is turnout for general elections. In 1992, 78% of the electorate turned out to vote, but by 2001 this had fallen to a postwar low of 59%. The 2010 general election saw a small recovery to 65%.

When writing answers on participation, it would be useful for students to refer to turnout in other types of UK elections as well as those those for the Westminster Parliament. If we look at local elections, turnout can be pretty disastrous. In 2008 for example, the average turnout was 35%; in 2000 it was only 29%. UK elections to the European Parliament fare little better, with 35% turning out to vote in 2009, 39% in 2004, and a paltry 24% in 1999. And what about the  2011 referendum to change the UK’s electoral system to AV?  Only 42% of people were sufficiently enthused to pop down to their local polling station to exercise their democratic right.

All of this data is suggestive of a decline in political participation. Having a range of turnout data from local, national, and European elections will no doubt impress the examiner.

Posted in AS Unit 1, Democracy and participation, Home | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Exam technique: the decline in political participation

Posted by Matt Walker on October 5, 2011


Recently I set my students a full exam question for Edexcel Unit 1, encompassing the short, medium and long answers, looking at democracy and participation. The 10-mark part (b) question was, “In what ways has political participation in the UK declined in recent years?”

The first thing to note is that this question is asking you how participation has declined, not why it has declined. Failure to appreciate this distinction will cost you valuable marks.  Neil McNaughton’s AS level textbook points out that participation has declined in 3 main ways:

1)  Voter turnout

2) Party membership

                                               3) Partisan dealignment

For this type of question, 7 marks are awarded for Knowledge and Understanding (AO1), and 3 marks are allocated for your level of explanation (AO2). Good exam technique to access all these marks is:

              1)  Write 3 paragraphs

              2)  Focus on a major point in each paragraph, e.g. voter turnout

              3)  Include 2-3 facts in each paragraph – e.g. levels of turnout across a number of elections

              4)  Explain your facts by linking to the question – e.g. why voter turnout is an important indicator of levels of participation.

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Human rights and the UK’s liberal democracy

Posted by Matt Walker on October 2, 2011

In my previous post I outlined the main criticism of the UK’s liberal democracy. Today’s comments by Home Secretary, Theresa May, illustrates this criticism perfectly. Today’s Sunday telegraph reports her as saying that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped because it causes “problems” at the Home Office, particularly when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants, some of whom “are perhaps terrorist suspects”. A summary of what she says can be found on the BBC News website.

The Human Rights Act enshrines into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights, and is the main cornerstone of human rights within the UK constitution (apart from the Magna Carta of 1215, which was aimed at the barons of the Middle Ages rather than 21st Century peasants like you and me). Aside from the arguments for and against the Human Rights Act, it is interesting to note that if there were a majority Conservative Government in this country they might well repeal the Human Rights Act, thereby changing my rights, your rights and everybody else’s rights just by passing an ordinary law through Parliament. To have such an effect on American citizens’ rights, for example, the US Government would need  two-thirds support from both Houses of Congress, as well as the support of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Put another way, human rights are not entrenched in the UK which means they are easily tampered with. Entrenchment would mean protecting our rights from being swiftly reversed. From the government’s point of view it would mean accepting human rights law even if it does inconvenience and cause “problems” to the UK Home Office.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy and participation, Home, Judiciary and human rights | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 26, 2011

In many respects it seems obvious to conclude ‘yes’ to this question, that the UK is a liberal democracy.  The UK enjoys free and fair elections, experiences smooth transitions of power from one government to the next, and is generally a tolerant society whose politics has been opened up by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, there are some major criticisms which we can level, and these stem from the fact that the UK constitution does not successfully limit governmental power,  nor does it entrench our human rights. On the latter point, any British government could in theory alter our key human rights by simply passing a Bill through Parliament. In most liberal democracies, it would require a lengthy challenge to a constitution, making it harder to make any such changes to citizens’ rights.

With regards to the UK’s failure to limit government power, a good example (see video link below) is the decision by the Labour Government to go to war with Iraq in 2003. As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry indicates, Tony Blair made this decision himself, largely side-lining Cabinet and Parliament in the process. This particular issue demonstrates that in the right circumstances, the UK Prime Minister is very powerful.

Any assessment of the success or otherwise of liberal democracy in Britain cannot ignore this point, and in any essay you write making such an assessment will require you to tackle this issue.

Click here for video link.

Posted in AS, Constitution, Democracy and participation, Home, Prime ministerial power | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Labour lays claim to a progressive future

Posted by Matt Walker on April 13, 2010

Yesteday the Labour Party published its election manifesto, “A future fair for all”, containing the values, ideas, and policies it hopes it will be able to implement over the next five years. What is immediately interesting is the sheer length of it! It is 76 pages long (although the Tory manifesto is 130 pages long). Now, I have a great interest in politics and yet find this pretty much unreadable. What the general public will make of it I don’t know, but I can guess – most people won’t read it. Gone are the days when a manifesto covered a few pages and could be easily digested.

In fairness, the Labour Party website itself does try to help us out a bit. It specifies its broader values as :

  • Rebuilding the economy
  • Reform and protection of public services
  • Renewal of politics

There is also a handy video, which does make the manifesto more digestible.

It is also worth taking a look at either the BBC and Guardian websites. The Guardian’s analysis is particularly interesting, taking the reader through each page of the manifesto, with various annotations. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • “It is our belief that it is active, reforming government, not absent government, that helps make people powerful.”
  • halve the deficit by 2014
  • no increase in income tax
  • national minimum wage to rise in line with average earnings
  • Referendums on electoral and House of Lords reform
  • Strengthening of public power over public service delivery

Given that the manifesto is 76 pages long, this post could in theory go on forever! It will be interesting to see which parts get emphasised over the campaign. Anything here which excites or depresses you?

Gordon Brown launches Labour priorities

Posted in Democracy and participation, Political Parties | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Final words on the BNP

Posted by Matt Walker on October 24, 2009

Anti-BNP protest A Daily Telegraph article today discusses an opinion poll conducted by YouGov. The poll was taken just after Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time and suggests that 22% of respondents would “seriously consider” voting for the BNP at local, national, or European elections. Over half of respondents believed that the BNP were right to “speak up for the rights of the indigenous British”.

The historical and theoretical meaningless of the term “indigenous British” will be explored at some time in the future. For now we must wait to see what happens to levels of support for this far right party.

The consensus amongst most of my students is that it was correct to allow Griffin on Question Time. I am yet to be convinced.

One in five ‘would consider voting BNP’

BNP members: the far right map of Britain

Posted in Democracy and participation, Multi-culturalism | 3 Comments »

Controversial Question Time clips

Posted by Matt Walker on October 22, 2009


Posted in Democracy and participation, Liberalism, Multi-culturalism | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Question Time and the BNP

Posted by Matt Walker on October 22, 2009

image Tonight, the BNP leader Nick Griffin will make his controversial appearance on the BBC’s Question Time. Channel 4 did an excellent report on this, exploring the tension between allowing freedom of speech and the risk of giving the BNP beneficial publicity. There is also an interesting interview with Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who describes an unpleasant encounter with Griffin. Click on the links to watch the videos.

Channel 4 News report

Margaret Hodge interview

Posted in Democracy and participation, Liberalism | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »