Demanding democratic reform ahead of the UK election

‘Occupy Democracy’ campaigners say the archaic voting system fails to reflect the people’s true needs and desires.

Occupy Democracy campaigners at Parliament Square are demanding democratic reform [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]
Occupy Democracy campaigners at Parliament Square are demanding democratic reform [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – Activists in the UK are braving a draconian crackdown on public protest to stage a “festival of democracy” outside the Houses of Parliament in London, demanding “system change not regime change” amid predictions that Thursday’s general election could pitch the country into political chaos.

“Occupy Democracy” campaigners have been gathering since May 1 in Parliament Square, a grass-covered traffic island populated by tourists and statues, to call for political reforms including restrictions on corporate influence and a “citizen-led constitutional convention for real democracy”.

They say they intend to stay until at least May 10, despite heavy-handed policing and several arrests already, and believe their numbers could swell from Friday as frustration mounts over post-election uncertainty and doubts about the legitimacy of the UK’s current voting system.

“Politics isn’t something that is done to us and that is what this is about. There is a symbolic edge to what we are doing because this is the physical heart of our so-called democracy,” Matt Bonner, an Occupy Democracy activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Hopefully we can start to talk about some tangible things that we can begin to do to be more inclusive and to enact something verging on real democracy.”

 United Kingdom Election

Activists say they are also seeking to challenge restrictions on the right to protest outside parliament imposed 10 years ago when the square became a gathering point for anti-war campaigners opposed to British involvement in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although softened in 2011, current laws forbid protesters from erecting tents or other structures or using amplified noise equipment.

Police state?

Last year, activists managed to stage a 10-day occupation of the square, despite authorities erecting a fence around the site, which they said was necessary to protect the grass.

On Monday afternoon, three people were arrested as they meditated in a pop-up tent in front of a recently erected statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the edge of the square, as part of a demonstration for action to tackle climate change. Activists said about 50 police had been involved in making the arrests and dismantling the tent.

“We decided to demonstrate in a peaceful way at the feet of Gandhi as an act of civil disobedience because we have been arrested repeatedly for sitting on a tarpaulin,” Donnachadh McCarthy, one of those arrested, told Al Jazeera.

“In this square it is illegal to have a tent, it is illegal to have tarpaulin, it is illegal to have a loudhailer, it is illegal to play a protest song, and the idea that they put in a statue of the patron saint of civil disobedience beggars belief.

“It was a beautiful event. We had music, we had meditation, and at the end we draped Gandhi in a tarpaulin shawl and set up a tent and that was too much for the police state.”

McCarthy, 55, said police officers had dragged him away, twisting his ankle and his knee and pulling muscles in his neck. His hands were also swollen and cut from being handcuffed.

“They kettled a tiny tent with three people inside chanting. It was quite brutal and I ended up screaming so much I lost my voice. It shows to my mind the moral bankruptcy of our government on both protest and the crucial issue of climate crisis.”

Donnachadh McCarthy accused police of roughing him up as he protested in front of a statue of Gandhi [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]

A police spokesperson told Al Jazeera that McCarthy had been charged for failing without reasonable excuse to comply with a direction to cease prohibited activities in Parliament Square and obstructing a police officer executing his duties.

When Al Jazeera visited the square on Tuesday, a few dozen protesters were being closely monitored by 16 police officers positioned in pairs around the square, with three police vans also parked nearby.

Patricia McGreig, a 55-year-old from South London and a veteran of the Occupy London camp established outside St Paul’s Cathedral for six months in 2011 and 2012, said urgent political change was needed to tackle rising levels of inequality.

“Where I live we are seeing so much suffering and that is just in one street. We need some fresh ideas and I don’t think the politicians can deliver without looking at the underlying system,” McGreig told Al Jazeera.

“The system that we’ve got is very ancient and it needs the cobwebs brushing out. It serves the elite, and they don’t know what it is like, as I have done for the past two winters, to put your bed in the living room to get some heat from the one radiator because the rest of the house is ice.”

Complicated matters

Protesters are worried about the future of the UK [Getty Images]

British politics has been dominated for most of the past century by the right-wing Conservative Party and left-wing Labour Party, with one or the other usually winning enough seats in the House of Commons, the democratically elected parliamentary lower house, to claim a governing majority.

But the two main parties’ share of the overall vote has declined in recent times, with the Conservatives only able to form a government after the last election in 2010 by brokering a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the UK’s third party.

Polls suggest that both the Conservatives and Labour will tally about one-third of votes cast on Thursday, with neither close to winning a majority and the fluctuating fortunes of the UK’s other parties complicating matters further.

While support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen into single digits, the populist UK Independence Party, which wants the country to withdraw from the European Union, is currently polling about 14 percent, although that figure may translate into only a couple of seats.

Meanwhile, surging support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which last year campaigned unsuccessfully for Scotland to leave the UK, could see it propelled into a position of influence as the third largest bloc in parliament with more than 50 seats.

Doubts that neither main party may be able to claim a legitimate mandate to govern have left commentators from across the political spectrum predicting chaos, and even the possible collapse of the UK as a political entity.

“Our electoral system is no longer creaking, it’s disintegrating around us, showering the political elite with occasional bits of rubble,” wrote Owen Jones in the Guardian newspaper.  

The Independent warned: “A spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of its own end.”

Writing in the Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook urged Britons to cling to the birth last week of a royal baby as a “reminder of the ties that, for centuries, have bound us together … at a time when the very survival of our United Kingdom seems genuinely threatened by electoral deadlock, political chaos and the rise of fanatical nationalism”.

Archaic voting system

Campaigners for electoral reform say the dissatisfaction with the current campaign has prompted a clear shift in public opinion in favour of a system based on proportional representation, in which each party is allocated parliamentary seats according to their share of the overall vote.

We need to start addressing the fact that democracy needs to come from below, it's got to be about people being truly represented.

Matt Bonner, protester

A poll published last week by the Electoral Reform Society found that almost three-quarters of people favoured proportional voting over the current system.

“People are more and more aware that our voting system is unfit for purpose,” Katie Ghose, chief executive of ERS, told Al Jazeera.

“With every election the need for reform becomes clearer. This looks like it will be the second election in a row where no party will have an overall majority, so we are getting hung parliaments, and potentially governments which are unrepresentative of how people vote.

“The consequences are likely to be greater disillusionment with politics and a growing gap between people and their representatives – something which is incredibly unhealthy for democracy.”

Ghose said she believed there was still time to reform the UK’s political system in time for the next scheduled election in 2020, and echoed Occupy Democracy’s call for a constitutional convention to debate possible alternatives.

“Nationally, the pro-reform parties need to work together to put reform on the agenda after Thursday to make sure this is the last election under our archaic voting system. We’re hopeful that a fairer system will be very much on the cards over the coming weeks.”

Back in Parliament Square, Bonner said the struggle to reshape British democracy had already begun.

“People will be on the streets on Friday, but we are here now, we were here before, and we will be here afterwards. It is an exciting time in many ways.

“We need to start addressing the fact that democracy needs to come from below. It’s got to be about people being truly represented and about people engaging in politics on a daily basis rather than just putting a tick in a box every five years.”

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper

Source: Al Jazeera


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