Social justice needs a strong vibrant democracy

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which, in 1918 conceded that men aged 21 and above should be allowed to vote and that women should be enfranchised too (provided they were 30 or over and owned property).  While it was not until 1928 that all women aged 21 and over were given the vote, the 1918 Act did mark an important milestone as over the next 30 years, the substantial increase in the number of ordinary people having the vote meant that social policies addressing the needs of the majority (rather than protecting the privileges of the elite) would steadily expand, culminating in the establishment of the welfare state in 1948.

Alas, a further 30 years on, those who took a dim view of social justice had devised a strategy to turn democracy on its head.  Aided by unrivalled funding from corporate backers, media outlets acquired by wealthy allies, and mass misdirection orchestrated by the best propagandists money could buy, the New Right managed to steer enough people to vote for them even though many of those voters would lose out under their rule.  Income inequalities, which had been continuously brought down since the 1910s, started to rise after 1979 and had been on the up since. And whenever the New Right returned to power, public services and the social safety net would be relentlessly cut back.

The philosophy of one-person-one-vote was always premised on the assumption that people would have the opportunity to reflect on an informed basis what options would best improve their lives as individuals and as members of a shared society.  But once political interactions are toxified by stirred-up prejudices, systemic deception, and power inequalities, democracy is displaced by electoral manipulation. To revive democratic governance, we need thorough reforms. Simply getting the vote out on an uneven playing field will never be enough.  A comprehensive review of the diagnoses of democratic failings has led to a detailed assessment of the underlying problems and a set of 40 recommendations put forward in Time to Save Democracy (Policy Press, 2018).  Three areas in particular are highlighted for urgent action.

First, civic togetherness must be strengthened.  Attempts to divide communities with hate-filled narratives and scapegoating campaigns should be firmly countered.  Misunderstanding should not be dismissed, but healed through restorative practices. No individuals or groups should be set higher thresholds to shape democratic outcomes.  For example, it is plainly discriminatory when the UK Government changed the law so that trade unions cannot call for strike action unless at least 40% of their eligible-to-vote members are behind a majority vote to strike, when no such threshold is set for a vote on the far more disruptive action of pulling the UK out of the EU – and though only 37% of those eligible to vote backed ‘leave’, the government regards that as ‘democratically’ sacrosanct. And instead of scheming to make it more difficult for marginalised groups to vote with Voter ID hurdles, more should be done to enable more people’s votes to matter by improving the electoral system with more proportional forms of representation.

Secondly, objectivity must be reinstated as the bulwark against the proliferation of what is euphemistically termed ‘post-truth’ – or lies.  There needs to be better teaching of logical and evidential reasoning, as well as critical political literacy. And contrary to the myth that the freedom of speech is absolute, every country that takes the rule of law seriously (the US is no exception) recognises the need to set and enforce legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security.  The principles of restriction already embedded in existing laws and practices must be applied to those who use the money and influence provided by irresponsible businesses to deceive the public.

Finally, the challenge to secure power balance must be taken up.  Decisions affecting communities should be resolved at levels closer to the people, but with the proviso that they are done under conditions of informed, properly facilitated deliberations. Power should be shared through a greater number of devolved civic roles, with many of these open to term-limited rotation rather than contests loaded in favour of those with most to spend on campaigns.  Where elections are appropriate, limits for financial support for political candidates must be brought down to a much lower level. Above all, with the widening of wealth inequalities exacerbating the power gap between the corporate elite and the majority gripped by economic insecurity, a fairer distribution of resources should be advanced through more extensive adoption of worker cooperative practices and strengthening of public provisions to counter-balance private iniquities.

Henry Tam is a specialist in democratic development.  He has been University of Cambridge’s Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, and Head of Civil Renewal with the last Labour Government.  His latest book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, (Policy Press, 2018) is available from

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