Institutional inertia in representation and participation

Representation and participation are cornerstones of liberal representative democracy.  Institutions that facilitate equal participation and representation are part and parcel of the very definition of democracy itself, whilst also serving as vehicles for achieving democratic outcomes and administering democratic politics.  However, there is real concern in both mature and young democracies that the institutions that should in theory support effective and meaningful representation and participation – elections, political parties and parliamentary representatives – are in practice failing to do so.

Effective democratic institutions can take decades, if not centuries, to develop and embed themselves in society.  Existing institutions can of course be tweaked or reformed, old institutions abolished and new ones established.  However, the politics and behaviour that they are designed to shape and channel do not change overnight.  Just like other institutional spheres, democracy is prone to institutional inertia.  This raises the important question as to whether the institutions of liberal democracy that we are so familiar with today, with their roots in particular moments of primarily European history, are suited to contemporary political, economic and social contexts across the world.

As in most contemporary democracies, formal political participation in the UK is effectively limited to periodic elections.  These often offer voters little meaningful choice over who should represent them in national politics. Electoral candidates tend to have similar socio-economic backgrounds, and party policies have on the whole converged around the centre of the ideological spectrum.   The UK electoral system is majoritarian, with party political affiliation often overlapping with constituency boundaries. Political mobilisation and campaigning therefore focuses on marginal constituencies in which voters are undecided or can be “swung” to vote for one party or another. Systems for selecting democratic representatives are thus deeply flawed, which surely diminishes the likelihood of effective representation and participation in everyday politics.

In between elections, citizens can attend local surgeries to speak with their parliamentary representatives, create lobby groups or contribute to public consultations on policy when invited to do so.  However, it is clear that the opportunities available for formal political participation do not meet contemporary needs and wants.  Levels of political cynicism and alienation are high amongst the British public, and membership of political parties is in overall decline.  The Power Inquiry A major study into citizen attitudes towards democracy conducted in 2005 found that British citizens are not politically apathetic.  They do care about political issues, and find alternative ways to participate in political life outside of the party political system.  The study concludes that the roots of the problem lie in institutional inertia:

“the British political system is structured as though the lifestyles, expectations and values of the industrial era are still in place. Citizens have changed”.

Despite the fact that the traditional institutions of liberal representative politics are failing to translate into meaningful participation and representation in mature democracies, these same institutions are being established and promoted in the world’s new democracies.  Unsurprisingly, these are similarly failing to foster genuine political empowerment and inclusion.  On paper, all people have equal rights to participate in, and be served by, politics and governance.  However in reality political careers are only available to those who already have political and/or economic power.  Poor and marginalised groups often lack the capacity and opportunity to influence government policy, either directly via elected representatives or indirectly via public debate.  Patronage politics often rules supreme, with the representative function being reduced to channelling direct economic benefits, whether legitimately or illegitimately acquired, to communities in return for votes.  Democratic institutions that should in theory translate the principles of equality, participation and representation into reality are left hollow, meaningless, and even damaging.

Whilst representation and participation are now commonly accepted to be indispensible and interrelated elements of healthy democracy, this has not always been the case.  Pitkin (2004) highlights how representation as a political concept evolved entirely separately from notions of democracy.  The Athenian brand of democracy was very different to that which is commonly practiced today, being deeply participatory and unrelated to any notion of universal human rights or suffrage.  Adult male citizens who had completed their military training were entitled to propose policies and legislation, and vote directly on them.  Citizens who met these criteria had equal rights of participation, but this principle of political equality did not extend to women or servant classes.  Nor was representation a component of Athenian democracy, reflected in the absence of a word to describe the term within Ancient Greek.

In England, until the 18th Century, representation was imposed from above as a means of control, rather than acting as a mechanism of political empowerment.  The monarch required each local shire and borough to send representatives to report back to residents about taxation requirements.  Pitkin describes how the function of this representation evolved over time, with the consent of constituents gradually becoming conditional on their grievances and issues being conveyed and addressed via their representatives.  It was only after the revolution of the late 18th Century that representation came to be viewed as a vehicle for democracy.  Even then, there were differing conceptions about the relationship between political representation and participation.  Whilst democrats believed that elected representatives could act as a voice of the people and a vehicle for popular participation, conservatives viewed representation as a means of controlling the political participation of the uneducated and unruly masses, and of limiting political influence to a trusted elite (ibid).

Pitkin is fearful that the same belief in the function of representation held by conservatives in late 18th Century England dominates in modern liberal democratic systems today.  Representation serves as a means of political exclusion rather than inclusion.  She concludes:

“representation has supplanted democracy instead of serving it….The representatives act not as agents of the people but simply instead of them”.

This is a worrying but seemingly accurate analysis.  It suggests the need for a complete rethink of contemporary assumptions about what democratic institutions can be expected to achieve in reality.  This is particularly important in the context of young democracies in developing countries.  The principles of equality, participation and representation are still entirely valid and important goals to pursue.  But the institutions that we have developed in order to achieve them are simply not proving to be up to the task.

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