Conviviality as an Ethos Requires Democracy: but Our Parliamentary Democracy Needs Radical Improvement to Meet the Expectations of Conviviality

An essay by Michael Bassey

Democracy? Seeking harmony with one’s fellows in ways which neither exploit others nor allow exploitation by them is a central idea of conviviality. It follows that conviviality requires the government of society to be conducted in ways which give free and effective ways for people to participate in the management of their affairs: in other words conviviality requires a democratic government. At present our democracy is frail and needs to be strengthened.

Proportional representation in the election of MPs is clearly more democratic than first-past-the-post because it means that at least half of the electors in a constituency have expressed full or partial support for the successful candidate. But in addition ‘first choices’ in a national election could be used to determine which political party forms the government. Empower MPs to vote in Parliament according to their own judgement and not on enforced party lines. Try to ensure that the newspapers clearly separate news from opinion and that they endeavour to give balanced accounts of political issues. These are convivial ideas.

1. Suppose that the political party which forms the government after an election is the one which polled the most ‘first choices’ in total across the country – and not necessarily the one with the most MPs in Parliament.

This would mean that every citizen casting a vote would know that it counted towards the choice of the next government. At present many people know that whether they vote or not it will make no difference to the political outcome because it is only voters in the so-called marginal seats that determine who gets into power. Elections would be more democratic in the sense of government chosen by the people.

It would encourage everyone to vote.

Of course, sometimes it would lead to the government not having a majority in the House of Commons. This would be less important if this second suggestion were implemented.

2. Suppose that Parliamentary whips were abolished and that MPs voted not according to party diktat but according to their individual judgements of the merits of bills under debate.

No doubt it would mean more ‘defeats’ for government proposals. This does not mean that government should resign, but that it should rethink. It should take on board the ideas of MPs who voted against it, not try to over-ride them. It might result in less legislation (probably a good thing) but it should lead to laws which have been carefully considered by all our representatives and not unthinkingly rubber-stamped by the party in power and stamped on by the opposition.

Beyond that it would overcome the invidious way in which parliamentary whips seem to wield patronage and worse in order to keep MPs to the party line. All MPs, including cabinet members, should be free to speak their mind in Parliament – that is what we have elected them to do.

The time for government to resign, other than at the end of a fixed term, is if a motion of no confidence is passed. Perhaps that needs a two-thirds majority of all members. As now it would not be exercised lightly since it would require a new election and put every MP's seat at risk. But it is the ultimate democratic safeguard against a malevolent government.

3. Suppose that the law required every newspaper to be managed by a board of trustees of British citizens, and not by single owners. Suppose that this board was required to publish its membership and the aims of its publication - including the separation of news and opinion, and balanced coverage of political ideas.

Democracy, to be effective, needs an educated electorate. People should cast their votes not from tribal loyalties but from their judgement of policies offered by the political contenders. Newspapers are an essential part of informing the public about political issues, but regrettably most of them push the particular political views of their ‘press baron’ owner rather than seek to give a balanced account of political arguments and issues.

Such judgement requires an analytical, critical and ethical mind (which should have developed in school education) and relevant and up-to-date knowledge of what is happening in society (which can only come from the media). Hopefully that judgement should be based on the general good of the community rather than on the individual gain of the voter.

Edmund Burke once said there were three Estates in Parliament (the hereditary lords, the bishops and the commons); but, in the Reporters' Gallery, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than the other three. Today, for sure, he would see the power as lying not with the news collectors but with the press barons and their obedient editors. And he would recognise that their aims are not to educate a wide readership but to widen that readership in order to increase the already vast wealth of the owners and to promulgate their political views. Both aims are profoundly undemocratic.

The exception is the Scott Trust Ltd, owner of The Guardian and The Observer, with its avowed sense of duty to both the reader and the community; its slogan (from C P Scott) that comment is free, but facts are sacred; and its concern to give opposing sides a chance to express their views.

Political decisions are profoundly influenced by what the papers say and what they do not say. Much hangs on how some papers tell their readers how to vote on election day. This is a poor semblance of democracy because it represents not the will of a newspaper’s readership, but the whim of its owners.

Government was fearful of intervening in the perversion of banking: it is even more fearful of intervening in the perversion of newspapers. But a brave government should seek ways of requiring the press barons to hand over their power to trust bodies with publicly declared aims. A Commission on Democracy and the Press would be a good start.

This page was posted on 20 November 2009 and modified on 25 November 2015