Peter Tatchell is a renowned Australian-born British human rights activist. Known for his outspoken defences of LGBT+ people, opposition to the Iraq War, criticism of the Catholic Church—and two attempted citizen’s arrests on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe—he has been working for almost 50 years against oppression and injustice. He will be in conversation with Professor Colin Talbot on the topic ‘What next for democracy?’ on the 30th of April, discussing the crisis that our political system has found itself in. I spoke to Peter to discuss his opinions on the British political system, inequality, and Islamism.
What is next for democracy?
A good start would be a fair and representative voting system. First Past the Post was designed for a two-party system, and it worked well while there were only two parties. However nowadays, there’s a multi-party universe, where First Past the Post skews the result. From 1955 to 2005, not a single British government won a majority of the popular vote. Every government was elected with minority support, usually around 40 per cent of the vote.
In 2005, Labour won 36 per cent of the vote, but bagged 55 per cent of the seats. That is not democracy. In this upcoming election, millions of people will vote for smaller parties and get few or no MPs. That is not what the chartists and the suffragettes fought for. We need some form of Proportional Representation like they have for the Scottish and London Assembly elections, where people vote for a constituency MP and for a top-up list MP. That produces a result that is much closer to reflecting the range of support for particular parties among the electorate.
Do you think that would be enough constitutional reform to sufficiently democratise our system?
The other big democratic deficit is the lack of economic democracy. We live under a system of economic dictatorship, where a handful of very rich, powerful managers, directors and major shareholders call all the shots when it comes to economic decision-making. The 99 per cent of the population are frozen out of economic power, in both the private and public sectors. We expect political democracy. Why not economic democracy too? I’d like to see every public and private institution with more than 50 employees be required by law to have at least one-third employee and consumer directors on their management board. They can act as representatives of staff and consumers—as watchdogs, and as whistleblowers if institutions act out of line.
How can we increase gender equality in politics?
I’m in favour of a radical reform of the House of Lords. I believe we need a second chamber, to act as a robust scrutiny and revising chamber, to hold the government in check, and in particular to scrutinise European legislation. But I wouldn’t want to see a replacement senate elected on a similar basis to the House of Commons. What I support would be a system of Proportional Representation based on regions rather than a national vote or individual constituencies. This will ensure a fair representation of the various geographical areas of the UK.
These regions could be based upon the regions used for the European elections, and each region could have 40 members. I’d like to see every party be required to present an equal number of male and female candidates in each region. In other words, for a 40 member regional constituency, 20 candidates for each party should be men, and 20 should be women.
Likewise, I propose that voters should be required to vote for 20 male candidates and 20 female candidates, with the right to pick and mix from the different party lists. That way we would ensure that the second chamber had automatic 50 per cent women’s representation.
Think forward to the 2020 election. We can’t know who will be in power, but would you be able to say what will be different?
The two major parties, often with the connivance of the Liberal Democrats, are conspiring together to maintain the status quo. There are some differences, but not much. It means that voters don’t have much choice, as the policies on offer are not significantly different.
The status quo is rotten to the core. It serves the interests of the rich and powerful to the exclusion of the vast majority of people. It preserves the positions of the 1 per cent against the 99 per cent. In Britain today, democracy is still an aspiration, not a reality.
How do you feel about tactical voting?
Tactical voting is second best. Why should people not be able to vote for what they really believe in? It’s outrageous that we have to put up with a system whereby many of us feel forced to vote for a second best party in order to stop another party.
I’m in favour of an anti-Tory and anti-UKIP alliance. Ed Miliband has made a fundamental misjudgement in ruling out an arrangement with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, Sinn Fein, and the SDLP. Those forces together constitute a progressive alliance which Labour should embrace, not reject.
Do fringe parties such as UKIP and the Green Party offer real change?
The Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and the TUSC, are all in different ways offering some substantive change from the way in which the system currently operates. They don’t go as far as I’d like, but if they had power we’d be moving in the right direction.
UKIP often say that offering a referendum on membership of the EU would, in fact, be more democratic because we didn’t choose to be in it. How far do you agree?
That’s just not true. There was a referendum in the 1970s where people did agree to join up to European co-operation. However, that was a long time ago, and Europe has become a much closer union ever since then. That’s why I support a referendum. The people should be able to have a democratic vote on staying in or coming out.
Despite my criticisms of the European Union, I want to stay in and change it from within. I would like to see it democratised and decentralised. That means giving more power to the democratically elected European Parliament. It also means moving away from representation at nation-state level to direct regional representation in the European Union.
I favour not only direct representation in the EU for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also for English regions. The nation-state is a legacy of the era of Imperialism. Breaking down the state into smaller, more accessible and accountable units is good for democracy and people power.
How should we encourage the young and the underrepresented to actually register and vote?
One of the reasons for political apathy is because many people feel that however they vote, nothing significant will change. They’ve seen the financial corruption of Members of Parliament through the expenses scandal. They’ve witnessed cash for questions, cash for honours, cash for access, and umpteen other corruptions by a huge proportion of Members of Parliament.
We’ve heard politicians say there’s no money for vital public services, but they always find money for weapons and wars. The Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats, to varying degrees, backed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a time when they claimed there was no money to build new affordable social housing. Russell Brand is right in his critique of the system, but unlike him, I still think it’s important for people to vote. I just wish we had a truly democratic voting system.
Could there be other methods to encourage young people to get more involved in the system?
Not while the system is rigged in favour of the establishment. That makes getting people out to vote really difficult. If people feel their vote won’t count and the system will just carry on as before, obviously millions of people just won’t bother. We saw that in the last election, when the non-voters were greater than the number of votes received by any political party.
Does the media have a part to play in this?
Much of the media is hand-in-glove with the Westminster elite. Of course they criticise them from time to time, but there’s no equivalent coverage given to alternative ideas and voices. Every now and then, political radicals are given a platform, but it’s just a tokenistic smokescreen to enable the people in power to say that they’ve given other points of view a hearing.
In all the debates about the economic crisis from 2008, I hardly heard a single person being allowed to propose an alternative to prevent the recurrence of a similar financial crisis. Even when the media did interview left-wing spokespersons, they were always getting people who were very good at critiquing the system, but hopeless about proposing any credible alternative. That meant the vast bulk of the population was left with the notion that there is no alternative.
Do celebrity commentators, such as Russell Brand, act as a force for good on the whole?
Celebrities, just as much as the average person, have the right to express their opinion. On the whole, most celebrities use their status to promote progressive causes. Although I don’t agree with everything Russell Brand says, I think he’s been a positive influence. His interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight was a masterful critique of the establishment system. For the most part, Russell Brand was absolutely brilliant at exposing the flaws and failings of the political elite.
Is there really a serious issue with Islamism and Islamophobia in Britain today?
We are currently faced with two big challenges. Both anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamist extremism are threats to social cohesion and public security. It’s undeniable that there is an anti-Muslim prejudice in our society, though I don’t think it’s as great as some people claim. The Islamists exaggerate; they say that Britain is at war with Muslims, and that every Muslim is under threat from the British state. That is complete nonsense. Most Muslims in Britain have greater rights and freedoms than in any Muslim-majority country. They are allowed to practise whichever version of Islam that they wish, without the fear of persecution by the state. That’s not the same in many other countries. If you’re a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, you’ll face persecution by the Sunni majority. If you’re a Sunni Muslim in Iran, you’ll face persecution by the Shia majority. We don’t persecute people because they happen to be Sunni or Shia in Britain. We have a problem with a minority of hotheads, circling around the BNP and the EDL, but that is not the general view of most British people.
While a lot of people highlight intolerance against Muslim people, they ignore similar intolerance against Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and other faiths and ethnic minorities. There are a lot of double standards. What I find particularly shocking is the significant number of universities that regularly host Islamist preachers who advocate Sharia law, including the execution of women who have sex outside of marriage, gay people and Muslims who give up their faith. At some of these events there are attempts to enforce gender segregation in the audiences. This is completely against the Equal Opportunities policies of those universities, yet the authorities sometimes look the other way in the name of free speech. Free speech does not include the right to promote speakers who advocate the killing of other human beings, and who seek to enforce discrimination against women.
Sadly, we don’t hear enough about the many Muslims who reject extremism, and who support democracy and human rights. Those voices need to be given a greater amplification by the media and social institutions. The government’s Prevent strategy against Islamist radicalisation is deeply flawed. It’s based upon snooping and snitching. What the government absolutely failed to do is to counter Islamist ideas. The only way to defeat Islamist ideas is with better ideas, ideas that expose the fundamental authoritarianism and tyranny that lies at the heart of extremism, which threatens Muslim people more than anybody else. The prime victims of Islamist extremism in Britain are the Muslims. They are being harassed and victimised in their community. This includes pressure and harassment of women who don’t conform to a strict Islamist dress code, forced marriages, victimisation of gay Muslims, and a campaign of systematic harassment of liberal, progressive Muslims.
‘Peter Tatchell in conversation: What next for democracy?’ will be held in University Place, Lecture Theatre A, on the 30th of April from 6:45 – 8:15. Students wishing to register for the event should visit here to get tickets.
For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights work, to receive his email bulletins or to make a donation, visit www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org.
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