EU Referendum

Harrogate conference: one week to go



There is one week to go before we meet at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, the object being to frame six demands, in the manner of the Chartists. The aim is to provide a focus for a popular movement, generating six important reforms which will help us on the way to becoming a democracy.

By coincidence, we see today, a piece in The Guardian headlined: "British democracy in terminal decline, warns report". It trails the recently published 2012 Democratic Audit, produced by the organisation Democratic Audit.

In terms of a communication exercise, the report is a joke. It is 463 pages long, that alone ensuring that few people will read it. It is badly presented, incoherent, poorly structured and, by and large, misses the point – especially in its headline assertion. We do not have and never have had a democracy. It cannot, therefore, be in decline, terminal or otherwise.

What we do have, of course, are the vestiges of a poorly constructed "representative democracy", which means – in theory only – that power is held on our behalf by Members of Parliament whom we hold to account in periodic general elections.

The "Democratic Audit" report is worth mentioning though because it illustrates what we are not trying to achieve. This it does by parading what it considers are the "many positive advances" over the last ten years: stronger select committees of MPs holding ministers and civil servants to account; devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and publication of much more information about politicians' expenses and party donors.

Looking at this very short list (which in the full report includes "advances secured through the Equality Act 2010"), there is nothing there which gets to the root of democracy – power. Define democracy and this becomes obvious – the literal translation from the Greek means "people power".

In assessing whether we have a democracy, therefore, the real and only question to ask is whether we, the people, have power. And that is not easy to answer, which is why organisations such as Democratic Audit avoid asking it.

Part of the answer is "yes", we do have some power. Some have more than others, and there is never going to be equality on this matter. But there are other questions.

For instance, do we, the people, actually want power, or more power than we have? And if we had more power, would we know how to use it? Even if we did know how to use it, could most of us be bothered to exercise it?

Power, of course, is difficult to define. It is never static and, when it comes to transfers of power, the old aphorism applies: it is taken not given. If the people wanted more power, they would take it. Arguably, because they do not, it could be asserted that they do not want the power, or not enough to make the sacrifices needed to acquire it.

Thus, the task we are setting ourselves next Saturday is not easy. But the important thing is to keep hold of the central issue: democracy is about power – who holds it and under what circumstances and controls, and how to get more of it. On each of the next six days, I will explore these issues, to help next week's deliberations.