Jack Emmerson: A democracy that is failing to empower us

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I STILL remember the day – May 6, 2010. The last General Election. I was 18 at the time and wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about politics at all, but turned out to vote all the same.

I can remember being quite impressed with how fresh Nick Clegg appeared on the national TV debates in the weeks leading up to the vote, which persuaded me to tick his party’s box – something my younger brother and sister shall have to forgive. I had no idea that the man would agree to straddle them with a 174 per cent tuition fee increase (I don’t think he did either)!

Since then, I have said to anyone who has asked that I’ll spoil my ballot paper at this year’s election? Why? Well… they’re all the bloody same, aren’t they? They promise one thing and do the other, they tediously bang on about is how toxic the ‘others’ are and never answer a question with a straight answer.

However, no matter how indifferent I feel towards politicians, I have always maintained that I would turn up to vote, even if that meant voting for my own candidate named ‘none of the above’. The point being this; I consider myself lucky to live in a nation that has democracy.

Democracy – we’re meant to feel empowered by it. Well, having completed part of my studies at the University of York with a student from Switzerland, I remember feeling what little power I imagined I had dissipate when she explained what democracy meant for her.

I remember Valérie, who is originally from Geneva, laughing at me when I described my experience of democracy: “No, wait…. Is that it? You can’t be serious! … That is not a democracy!”

I had nothing to say in reply. During the period between 1995 and 2005, the Swiss voted 31 times to answer 103 questions on issues within healthcare, taxation, welfare, drug policy, public transport, immigration and education. In comparison, the UK has held 12 referendums since 1973, only two of which covered the whole nation (1975: Should the UK remain within the European Economic Community? 2011: The alternative-vote referendum). The rest have mainly been concerned with granting powers here and there to Northern Ireland, Wales, London and, most recently, the Scottish independence referendum last September.

During the course of our studies, my Swiss colleague logged on to her e-voting platform [available at: http://ge.ch/vote-electronique/] several times. So even when she was studying at the University of York, some 800 miles from home, she participated in a level of democracy that is almost unrecognisable to me.

We have been told that we could perhaps use e-voting systems in our general elections from 2020 onwards in this country (the Genevois have been operating an e-voting system for over 10 years now), but I would not be surprised if the next government fell well-short on promises to reinvigorate the voting system – there seems to be an accepted practice of failing to deliver in British party politics. Regardless, it would still only amount to one vote every four years.

Valérie voted on several issues whilst we completed our degrees, including tax rates for the super-rich (can you imagine that?), higher education policy and drug-reform legislation. Despite not always agreeing with the final decision of the majority, her view of how Switzerland should be is undoubtedly represented democratically.

I wish I could say the same...

So, how does the Westminster model of democracy compare? Once every four or five years, we elect someone to go and make important decisions for us on the basis that they will keep their pre-election promise.

It’s only a very rare occasion when the public are asked to cast their opinion democratically on issues that actually affect every one of us. It’s not good enough.

If anything, I was even more determined not to be complicit to such a broken system. However, in the wake of the Scottish referendum, the inadequate Westminster model is being seriously challenged.

For the first time, I have become enthusiastic about politics. At this general election, as it stands, I have decided that there is a party which is worth voting for.

Yorkshire First wants the same democratic and economic opportunities afforded to other regions in the UK, such as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – for Yorkshire.

One region, one voice. It only seems fair, doesn’t it? You can read all the compelling economic arguments for first-rate devolution in Yorkshire elsewhere, because the point I’m trying to make is one of democratic representation.

I believe that by taking notice of the best examples of democracy from around the world and constructing a model that works for fairly, efficiently and positively for the region, we have an opportunity to excel.

We’d have an opportunity to reinvigorate democracy for the whole region, reconnect people to the issues confronting us and build solutions with a system appropriate to the 21st century; e-voting, local referenda and citizen legislators are just several ideas that warrant discussion.

It would be a stark contrast to my first experience of democracy. Turning up to Flamborough Village Hall, located on the tip of the Yorkshire coast – far away from the city-region devolution on offer – and partaking in a democratic system that is more antiquated than the building itself (at least the village hall has undergone refits and paint-jobs so that it is still fit for purpose, I can’t say the same about Westminster).

The Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and Greater London have differing powers but all have a voice for their people. Tried and tested models that work. We need a United Kingdom that works for us too.

Perhaps it’s my pride in our region, but afforded the same opportunity, I know Yorkshire could again be a key UK region. Yorkshire folk have redefined this country many times in the past; their actions challenging the establishment in favour of self-help, fairness, equality and representation in our democracy. We can do the same again.

• Jack Emmerson is a fisheries scientist from Flamborough.