Monday, 5 September 2011

Unelected Oligarchy: is this what democracy looks like?

I recommend reading the Unelected Oligarchy report from Democratic Audit. It is researched and written by David Beetham,  a professor emeritus at Leeds University. Here is the opening summary:

'The financial crisis of 2007-8 and its aftermath have intensified the perception that the UK government works largely for the benefit of the corporate and financial sectors rather than of ordinary citizens and taxpayers. As part of a wide-ranging audit of Britain’s democracy, this paper explores the extent to which this perception is valid.

The first part traces the historical changes since the 1980s – ideological, economic, fiscal and operational – which have led to the increasing dependency of government on the private sector.

The second part identifies the different channels through which corporate and financial elites have inserted themselves into the heart of government over successive administrations, and how they continue to exercise a predominant influence over it – through the financing of political parties, think tanks and lobbying organisations, membership of advisory bodies, ‘revolving doors’ and joint partnerships with government. This situation is then assessed against internationally accepted criteria for democracy which Democratic Audit has employed over the past two decades.

The paper combines a rigorous evidential base with a principled analysis of what makes a system of government democratic. It will interest all those concerned with the current condition of Britain’s democracy.'

This brief extract is from the conclusion:

'What conclusions should we draw from this exhaustive, and no doubt exhausting, survey of developments that have taken place since the 1980s? First, that they have taken place under governments from all the main parties. Second, that they are the result of a combination of structural changes in the international and domestic economy, and active agency on the part of those best placed to benefit from them.

Third, that possible countervailing forces have proved largely ineffective against them. Trade unions have been disempowered and legally hobbled, inner-party democracy has been stifled and strong civil society organisations have at best been able to generate embarrassment and achieve cosmetic changes, such as the transfer of DESO to the business department rather than the outright abolition that had been promised. As to the new media, Reich writes that the blogosphere has proven ‘a boisterous outlet for airing views and venting frustrations, but there’s no direct or systematic link between these forums and decision makers.’

Fourth, that the large cuts in public expenditure currently under way are likely to further intensify the dependence of government on the private sector, as central departments and local councils are forced to further contract out their operations and services, and reduce their own skills base.

Most important, in terms of our ongoing democratic audit of the UK and its principles, these developments reveal a gaping democratic deficit. Instead of the public sphere constituting a separate life domain, with its distinctive values, relationships and ways of operating, it has become an extension of the private market, permeated by the market’s logic and interests.
Instead of popular control we have subordination to an oligarchy of the wealthy and economically powerful. Instead of everyone counting for one, we have the easy purchase of political influence and the well-oiled revolving door between government and the corporate sector.
In Lindblom’s terms, where democracy at best is a compromise between the power of the vote and the power of business, with government negotiating the interface between the two, the balance has been decisively, and perhaps terminally, titled in favour of the latter, as government has increasingly become its promotional agent. '

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