As Britain comes to terms with the result of its most recent expression of mass electoral democracy, the EU referendum vote, political division has given way to tense debate about how we define and exercise democracy. With the Vote Leave campaign winning by a margin of just 52% to 48%, millions are left feeling that their social connection to Europe has been dramatically severed against their will. Already the Labour politician Owen Smith, in challenging Jeremy Corbyn for his party’s leadership, has called for a second referendum once the details of Brexit have been outlined – causing some to question his democratic commitment. Some have argued that it was inappropriate to hand such a monumental decision to the people. Others have said that the result was not a fair representation due to the lack of political honesty during the campaign phase. But for millions on the other side of the debate, it was a lack of democratic representation over decades which cast them aside and fuelled the anti-EU sentiment in the first place.
Transcending these issues, and their potential solutions, is a natural and continual realignment of how we organise and exercise power. Definitions of democracy range from the holding of elections, to broader political representation, to “not only free, fair, and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful” (in the sense of free speech, access to information and strong institutions) – and eventually to full participatory democracy. This progressive understanding of democracy raises a fundamental question: is it possible for democratic freedom to be achieved on the sole or primary basis of the electoral vote? Do those of the Vote Remain camp simply have to accept the new political landscape outside of the EU? If the result had been different, would those desperate to leave the EU be expected to return to their lives and carry on as normal? Rarely in British politics has the choice and consequence at the ballot box been so stark.
Political scientist Bo Rothstein argues in favour of a wider definition of democracy saying that, ultimately, it is not the ‘input’ side of democracy which matters (i.e. elections) but quality of government (QoG), i.e. what happens on the ‘output’ side post-election.
He gives a compelling argument for refocusing our assessment of democratic effectiveness. Rothstein supports the premise that government’s biggest impact on a given citizen’s life comes not at the point of election, but in the intervening period and in contact with non-elected public servants such as doctors or legal officials. His main argument focuses on the concept of majority rule and the necessity of impartiality for effective government. He points out that in any democracy where the majority view is used as the basis of decision making there will inevitably be a divide in opinion, sometimes on a religious, cultural or other basis.
He uses the example of the Yugoslav civil war to highlight how this can lead to the oppression of minority groups despite electoral legitimacy – i.e. a democratically elected government might act against the interests of some of the people. As minority groups will never be able to represent themselves alone through democratic elections, legitimacy for these groups must derive from impartiality on the part of the government, Rothstein argues, thereby creating conditions for fair decision making. In the context of the EU referendum, the ‘minority’ happens to be 48% of the country. Their voice is loud, but it serves to highlight the plight of anyone on the losing side in an electoral battle.
Democracy – i.e. ‘government by the whole population’ – cannot be achieved through electoral control alone. Although important, even the ultimate marker of democratic freedom, elections are subservient to the associated impartiality which will define how people are governed in all aspects of their lives. Proper representation means governing for those who did not vote for you, as much as those who did. In systems of majority rule, where decisions are made according to our affiliations and varying moral characteristics, it is only through strong institutions that we can uphold this principle for all citizens.