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Camden New Journal - by ROSE HACKER
Published: 15 February 2007
Professional politicians are ruining democracy

IT was thrilling for me to live through the 20th century and witness the birth of our system of government by representative adult democracy.
We now take it for granted that governments are elected by a majority of eligible adults but that recent assumption looks increasingly unsustainable.
Ancient Greek society, often described as the cradle of democracy, was built on slaves. They did not count as people and were excluded from democratic processes.
When I was born, 100 years ago, over half Britain’s adult population was denied a vote, just for being female.
Could any young person today imagine the struggle women in Britain faced to win the right to vote and the obstacles and social disapproval they overcame?
This week marks the 100th anniversary of women’s first mass demonstration in favour of voting, the 3,000-strong ‘Mud March’ and no, at 11-months-old, I didn’t march.
An American university has asked me to write in future columns about some of the remarkable women who have inspired me.
I remember, as a schoolgirl, going to a ‘Votes-For-Women’ rally in Trafalgar Square and kissing the hand of Mrs Despard, a leading campaigner. Later I met Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the best known suffragettes.
Even when Parliament first granted women votes in 1918, women’s minimum voting age was 30, men’s only 21!
Universal adult suffrage first came into effect in 1929 with a voting age of 21, reduced to 18 in 1969.
Women’s battle and victory, winning votes for all adults, not only contributed to the effective functioning of democracy in Britain, it reinvigorated the whole political and social process and created trust in the system. However, when more than half the people now choose not to vote, we cannot call our system a ‘democracy’.
Democracy means ‘rule by the people’ not by a fraction of less than half the people.
Mass abstention by potential voters in Britain is a 21st century phenomenon.
It seems to be following the trend of disenchantment, disillusion and disgust that has characterised US politics for decades, often because of scandals, corruption and a feeling of lack of real choice between parties and candidates.
So what has gone wrong? Have we lost our democracy, that acceptance by the population of governments elected by a majority of voters? If so, can we develop new ways of achieving rule by the people?
Writing about special education, I realised many, possibly most, readers were born after the 1964 abolition of the London County Council. Even the Greater London Council, eliminated 21 years ago, would be totally unknown to younger readers.
The LCC, set up in a wave of late 19th government reforms, gave one of the world’s biggest cities the beginnings of democratically accountable, metropolitan government. Largely free of scandals and corruption, it boosted people’s trust in democracy and became a model for metropolitan government worldwide.
With functions and powers covering many important areas of local government, it guaranteed co-ordination and actively promoted a policy now impossible, ‘equalisation’.
Resources from richer areas could be integrated London-wide to help improve conditions for the more disadvantaged. Now they can’t.
Politics used not to be a career with an income, attendant researchers, and spinners. So many current politicians have never had another job working for a living or done military or community service.
They go straight from designer degree to profitable, political party post. Now political minions dare not vote against their leaders for fear of losing their livelihood.
Much local government today consists of councillors deciding where to make local spending cuts whenever central government limits council funding.
The resulting voter disillusionment and cynicism deprive us of effective democracy.
Wherever we look, in opposition to selfishness, greed and cynicism, people long to make friends and form communities.
With families split up and living far apart, friends and neighbours come together. Modern communications revolutionise the art and practice of friendship. Real pen friends are now rare. The internet replaces physical contact with virtual friendships and communities.
We need to recreate democracy from the bottom up, from small groups of friends doing things for their own communities and others. How can we achieve this?
When the Labour Party was founded, some alternatives to voting were considered, including drawing lots or choosing people from different organisations to serve for two years. Should we now give other systems a try?
To overcome apathy, counteract New Labour’s top-down approach and create real democracy we need new ways of working together to make people’s views felt.
Could the Book of Grievances which the Camden New Journal is sponsoring be a step in recreating that bottom-up democracy?
If grievances satisfied lead to real belief in the possibility of positive change, maybe it could.
If not, I fear that, at 100, I may have outlived democracy.

• Rose Hacker celebrates her 101st birthday next month.

Click here for more from Rose


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