What Does "Democracy" Mean?

Jennifer Hornsby on the UK and French elections.


It’s easy nowadays to wonder quite what democracy means. Thinking together about the result (to date) of the French Presidential election and the prospects of the forthcoming U.K. general election draws attention to the undemocratic character of our own electoral system.

Ahead of the French election, we were told how very unpredictable it was. But given the steady polls for the last six weeks, a bet on Macron and LePen seemed very safe even if a surprise wasn’t out of the question. What was remarkable about this election was not its unpredictability, but the fact that neither of the top two candidates comes from either of France’s two major parties. Imagine being told that after our election, we’ll have a Prime Minister who’s neither Labour nor Conservative.

Of course the French and U.K. systems are very different. We don’t elect our head of state: if the Queen has any authority, it isn’t derived from us, her subjects. (We’ve come to call ourselves citizens, it’s true, and we even know what our citizen rights are – at least until we leave the E.U.) But what has ensured the present stark contrast between France and us is not just the difference between their (semi) Presidential system and our (mitigated) monarchy, but the fact of our first past the post system in Parliamentary elections. It has kept the two-party system in place. And it has ensured that an election can easily turn into a media-led popularity contest between the leaders of the two main parties. It also makes for wildly disproportionate representation, so that in the last 20 years, save for Labour’s triumphant 43% in 1997 – netting them two thirds of MPs – neither of the two parties has got as much as 40% of votes cast.

The referendum, however, was different. In this case, one side got 52%. It remains to be seen exactly what they may have been voting for. But we’re told the will of the people was revealed. And now we’re to have another election. It’s not a re-run of the referendum of course, simply the Prime Minister’s means of shoring up the referendum result. May finds the opposition she faces in Parliament regrettable, so that she now “seeks our support for her decisions”. Differently put: she hopes to exploit the system. If Tories across the nation get 48% of the votes, which is what Remainers got in the referendum, then it’ll be a Tory landslide in the Commons, after which it can be the will of May, not of the people.

It would have been amusing if Labour had voted against an early election and followed it up with a Commons vote “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government”. Only a simple majority would have been needed, and Tories would have had to vote in favour. Why shouldn’t they? May had made it plain that she lacked confidence in her power to govern. Perhaps such a vote would have been better than amusing. Perhaps it would have drawn attention to the power grab which May intends, and which, thanks to our undemocratic electoral system, is probably in a position to pull off.

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 Jennifer Hornsby is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London and Emeritus Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.