25 July 2009

Voter Power

In my previous post, I wrote
. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate's limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

That probably needs to be explained more carefully. I've talked about the three-way game between civil servants, politicians and voters before, but there's a lot more that can be said. It's easy to argue in terms of "Democracy means the people control the government" or "Our democracy is fake", but the truth is more complex.

To a first approximation, democracy in Britain is fake. The real power lies with the civil service, who have to reach a compromise with other powerful interests in the media, other industry, the universities.

They also have to deal with the politicians who are nominally in charge of them, and who themselves are answerable to the electorate. In theory this is what gives the voters the power.

The politicians want to satisfy the voters by doing popular things, but that only works for them if they can appear successful. If the permanent establishment wants one thing, and the voters want another, the politician will do better in elections by following the wishes of the establishment than by following the wishes of the voters. Because if they do what the voters want, the establishment can make them look bad - everything that goes wrong (and lots of things always go wrong) will look like the politician's fault if the government is following a policy which the establishment opposes.

What it amounts to is that the fact that politicians are elected is an essential part of the system, which would be very different without it, but that its effect is not to take power away from the permanent establishment to any large degree. The voters have no fine control over policy, but within the permanent establishment (which obviously itself contains factions and differences of opinion) policies which have more appeal to voters will always have a slight advantage over policies which have less.

On this very coarse level, what most clearly gains votes is the expansion of the clients of the state - those on benefits or those in government employment. An establishment policy which cuts government employment will be one which politicians will be able to resist, one which adds them will be very hard to resist. Detailed arguments about economics or technicalities are insignificant in electoral terms compared to that - because the context in which they are presented to the voters is set by the civil service and media.

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