“Universal suffrage grants all citizens an equal say in shaping society through electing and holding to account those who make the laws that govern our lives.”
Democracy comes from the Greek ‘demokratia,’ or ‘people power’ – meaning people rule over themselves. Our modern democratic system, here in the UK, was hard won in struggles from the English civil war, through to the Chartists and the suffragettes. Universal suffrage grants all citizens an equal say in shaping society through electing and holding to account those who make the laws that govern our lives.
Yet there are still many constraints on democracy. In the UK, The House of Lords acts as a curb on the elected House of Commons. The prime minister, acting in lieu of the monarch, exercises the power of royal prerogative meaning that significant decisions, such as taking the country into war, can potentially be implemented without consulting either Members of Parliament or the general public. A ‘first past the post’ electoral system concentrates power in the hands of a small number of established parties.
Democracy has been further curtailed by the outsourcing of powers that previously fell under governments’ remit to supranational bodies, judges and independent central banks. In limiting their own power, elected representatives also limit the power of voters.
The UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership was an exercise in direct democracy. It revealed a widespread desire amongst many, including many first time voters and the majority of voters on lower incomes, to have more of a say in the shape of their nation and their lives. The subsequent impasse has revealed deep divisions and posed starkly the need for a meaningful debate on the kind of democracy we should have.
In this discussion, there is a pressing need for a less defensive and pejorative debate about ‘people power’ – a concept that was celebrated in that past, yet is viewed with
circumspection today. It is also clear that this debate must involve all people, speaking for themselves, not just small elites in nations’ capitals claiming to speak on their behalf.