Delusions of democracy

General elections with multiple parties contesting seats are supposed to be a key indicator of democracy in action. But the simple existence of elections does not make a democracy. Elections must also be free and fair. In a democracy ‘the people’ are the overseers of government. Democracy requires that each individual be free to participate in the political community’s self-government. Thus political freedom lies at the heart of the concept of democracy. As overseers of government, the people must have alternative, trustworthy sources of information in order to exercise their freedom to participate fairly. Not just during an election period but constantly, as knowledge is cumulative.

So let’s put GE2019 to a simple test: was it free and fair?

Fair elections means elections that are fundamentally honest. But in an age of social media, honesty is far from straightforward. Tweets purporting to come from Corbyn were sent from fake accounts and First Draft found that 88% of Conservative Facebook campaigning ads were deemed by Full Fact, the UKs leading fact checking organisation, to be misleading. The BBC also stood accused of dishonesty through misleading editing (and later apologised – twice). Rather than honesty being the driver of content, this election, more than any other, felt like it was fuelled by a political economy of lies. Lies are simply more crowd pleasing, circulate rapidly, are based on intensely affective responses, are mood inducing and therefore are often more commercially attractive. But lying also erodes trust and so it is telling that the Ofcom news consumption survey for 2019 notes that in age of distrust ‘word of mouth’ is now considered a legitimate source of news.

Fair means everyone gets a vote yet we know that the electoral register is far from complete. In September 2019 research by the Electoral Commission noted that 17% of eligible voters in GB, as many as 9.4 million people, were either missing from the electoral register or not registered at their current address with stark differences between younger people, renters, low-income and BME people compared with older white people who own their own homes. On the 18 November the Electoral Commission warned that 25% of black voters in Great Britain were not registered to vote. There was a voter registration surge but even this only saw an additional 3.2 million applications to register. In addition, many migrants who live, work and pay taxes in the UK are not eligible to vote because they have not gone through the extensive and expensive process of gaining citizenship.

Fair also means everyone has equal opportunity to get their point across. This election has seen lack of clarity about who bankrolls the politicians. Billionaire donors have been shown to protect the position and interests of those with wealth and power. Money in politics and campaigning has corrupted the electoral system turning the digital landscape into a playground for the elite. New techniques of digital manipulation give rise to sophisticated propaganda that is only just beginning to be understood.

Being free to participate fully requires being well informed – this relies upon the adequacy of processes, institutions and organisations of knowledge production. Yet this election saw unprecedented levels of misinformation, obfuscation and bias across most mainstream media that are well documented in this volume. The Conservatives changed their Twitter account to look like a fact checking service; Johnson refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC and clumsily hid a reporter’s phone in his pocket, rather than respond to questions about the NHS. The study by Loughborough University showed that the press were overwhelmingly negative about the Labour Party.

Lack of freedom to participate is also connected to inequality. The poor have less influence over policies and politicians and vote less. Voter participation increases with income and age because the wealthier are more likely to be listened to. Inequality is not a condition conducive to a sustainable democratic politics. In the UK, from 1980 to 2016, the share of total income going to the top 1% has more than doubled. After allowing for inflation, the earnings of the bottom 90% in the UK have barely risen at all over the past 25 years.

Fairness and freedom are about the ability to hold power (including media power) to account. Yet both have been in short supply during this election. The Conservatives have been elected on a mandate to drop the second stage of the Leveson inquiry and repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts act (the final and integral part of the Royal Charter Framework of Press Regulation). There is no sign that they intend to regulate the tech giants to make elections and electioneering any fairer or freer. Quite the opposite. Democratic delusions abound.