Democracy in Portsmouth? It’d Be a Good Idea

In the wake of recent protests both local and global, journalist, political commentator and S&C editor Tom Sykes questions how representative our elected representatives really are – in Portsmouth and beyond.

Criticisms of democracy have been around since the birth of democracy itself. But new questions are being asked in the West about how fair, efficient and representative our systems are given the allegations of dirty tricks in the run-up to the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump with almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. The unprecedented protests against Trump across the United States are, in part, a symptom of public frustration with a perverse procedure that, on four occasions in American history, has handed the presidency to the candidate who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.

The US is not the only country with a yawning disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of those who claim to represent them, even when the statistics show such claims to be dubious. The Conservatives’ 2015 general election win was spun by some commentators as a vindication of the austerity programme. But, as Abi Wilkinson of The Mirror points out, ‘Only 24% of those eligible to vote actually put a cross next to a Tory candidate on their ballot paper. That leaves a massive 76% of people we have no reason to believe support the Conservative government.’

The problem of legitimacy is even more arresting in local Portsmouth politics. In last May’s city council elections, Conservative leader Donna Jones was returned with a 55% majority. Her victory looks less impressive when you consider that, out of a total electorate of 10,286 in her Hilsea ward, only 1,566 (15.5%) voted for her.

As for the rest of the successful candidates in that same election, the mean majority based on total votes cast was 40.07% and the mean percentage based on the total number of eligible voters per ward was a mere 12.67%. None of these figures could be described as landslides.

When someone is elected to high office with no more than, as it were, a cult following it’s only logical that some of their policies will be intensely unpopular with the overwhelming majority of people who didn’t vote for them. Donna Jones, in particular, sounded hypocritical when she alleged that ‘democracy has been compromised’ by anti-austerity protests supported by large sections of the public.

Whatever happened during the fracas at the Arts Lodge last week, we can be sure that almost 5,000 people have signed a petition to keep it open. That’s almost 3,500 more people than who voted for Jones and most other serving councillors in this city. More strikingly, according to Lib Dem councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, 95% of Portsmouth residents oppose the closure of the Lodge.

When you contrast this with the council’s decision to ratify the Solent Combined Authority, about which there was little in the way of public consultation, it’s obvious there’s a double standard at play.

The blame for the democratic disconnect doesn’t ultimately lie with Trump, Jones or any other individual actor in these flawed elections and referendums. The problem is structural and we need a radical overhaul of our democratic processes and practices. More than that, we need to change the broader social conditions that make politics, by and large, a closed shop for the privileged. You need at least $10 million in the bank before you can even begin to think about standing for president of the United States. One third of British MPs were privately educated and a quarter went to Oxbridge.

Can we really, with a straight face, call this democracy?

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.

  • Sue Stokes

    Local politics conducted with some respect to those who bring deputations to the council chamber might be a good start to increasing participation at elections. And letting us know what happened following consultation and that being a meaningful process might be an improvement too. The system is broke and yes it badly needs fixing and some tangible public engagement activities need to help bring on the young and the old -remember ‘Take Part’ ? Wakey wakey PCC

  • Ian McCulloch

    Electoral reform has to be a priority. People get put off voting when they don’t feel their vote matters. When you hear so many people saying “I’d love to vote for X, but I’m going to vote for Y, because they’ve got the best chance of stopping Z, and I really don’t want Z to get in” you know the system is broken. I was canvassing for the Greens in Lancaster in 2010, and heard again and again “I’d love to have Gina as my MP, but I’m voting LibDem to keep the Tories out”.

    Give people a voting system where their second (or even third) choice counts if their first doesn’t win, and you’ll get more people voting, and voting for what they believe in.

    • Andrew Carter

      I largely agree. If the referendum has proved one thing it is that when people know their vote will count then they are much more likely to vote. If we were introducing democracy into this country for the first time and someone suggested the current system they’d be laughed at. And yet…people continue to trot out the nonsense of “Oh, but they understand it and proportional systems are so confusing! (which is (a) a lie and (b) incredibly patronising towards the voters). They’ll tell you we had a vote on PR which was defeated back in 2011 (though they won’t acknowledge that AV is not a PR system). FPTP is a terrible way of doing elections, yet we cling to it because it supposedly fosters a link between an MP and his/her constituents that PR systems do not. This is utter fallacy but it is rarely challenged in the media. In how many others areas of human life does “But we’ve always done it this way” constitute a reasoned argument?