Oli Henman: The quality of democracy is under strain

Oli Henman's letter to the Sussex Express, Jan 2020.

The December election marked a challenging time for our country, for accountability and for democracy. Why would I say that democracy is under threat? Let me explain.

Oli_Henman_Speaks_Hustings700.jpgDemocracy is about dialogue, it is about listening and engaging, it is about being publicly accountable and being true to your commitments.

As the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Lewes constituency I made it my priority to engage with a wide range of voters, to participate in public debates and to respond to questions via email and social media. I took time to reply and to ensure that my views were accountable to a wide range of fellow residents and I was glad to take part in interviews on the radio and television. This is what democracy means - it is about dialogue and a willingness to listen and respond to other points of view. It is also about being open to finding compromise.

But Conservative candidates did not respond to public scrutiny, they did not take part in key hustings, they did not join debates and they were not accountable to the people they serve. The Lewes candidate withdrew from debates and suspended her social media accounts. Why would she do this if she is keen to champion real democracy?

The Conservative Party across the country adopted similar tactics to reduce public debate and to focus on short populist messages with little real substance behind them. This was not about informing the public or about listening to other points of view. But what is worse is that we have been witnessing cynical misinformation combined with a cavalier disregard for parliamentary conventions and an apparent appetite to limit the independence of the judiciary. This is when we start to understand how our democratic system is being bent out of shape. The British system has always relied on ‘gentleman’s agreements’ and unspoken rules but these rules are increasingly being disregarded by those in power.

Furthermore, in terms of the democratic mandate, our ‘first past the post’ system does not provide a proportional number of seats to the actual number of votes cast. In this constituency the Conservatives won with less than 50% of the votes cast and nationally their vote share was more like 43%. This is not an overwhelming democratic mandate to enact such far reaching reforms. Instead the government should be open to listening to other points of view and recognising the need for inclusive decision-making, if it is truly concerned with bringing the country back together.

It is high time the Conservatives acknowledged that real democracy is about actual dialogue and informed debate not just simple soundbites.

Oli Henman

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