Sixth of the best to keep them honest
The sixth point of the Chartist’s six-point plan is sublimely simple.
To counter parliamentary corruption and bought elections, simply hold far more frequent elections, so that, with the many times more votersif, of course, rather than call for ‘A vote for every man…’, the Chartists had called for a vote for every person, they would have been talking twice the number of new voters called for in the first point:
…no purse could buy a constituency … since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
In the 178 yearsPeople’s Charter of 1838 since Chartist’s proclaimed their six-point plan, its sixth—annual elections—is the only measure not currently implemented by a sovereign state. It wasn’t a particularly radical proposition; at least one of the inaugural ‘thirteen United States of America’, Connecticut, prior to 1818, had its representatives on an even shorter leash—six months. However, it is easy to imagine how the logistics of the pre-telegraphelectrical —much less, pre-internet—era would have subsequently worked against a six-month term working its way through to the House of Representatives.
It must be said, a two-year term didn’t pre-empt the emergence, in the New World, of bought-and-paid-for politics—the likes of which the Chartists believed their one-year term would see an end to, along with the seven-year parliaments then prevailing in the United Kingdom. But the every-other election for the House of Representatives—the midterm—cannot be considered a full election, given that neither president, nor even a third of the senators, can be changed—reflected in the 20.5 percentage point lower midterm turnoutbetween the last two elections. Nor are the means of buying elections in 1883 comparable with today’s. In the Chartists’ time, individual voters needed to be bought, and with pocket and rotten boroughs boosting as few as Old Sarum, with its two representatives, two houses, and only seven voters, the logistics were a doddle.
Today, the masses are bought by a few powerful individuals such as Rupert Murdoch, controlling the narrative on a global scale, and by $2 billion-plus election campaigns. It would be naïve to imagine that, if they were held annually, big business would just give up on buying elections—clearly that will take more direct methods, to outlaw the brazen, two-century-old-plus practice. But there are, nevertheless, powerful reasons for considering one-year electoral cycles, beginning with the crux of the sixth point of the People’s Charter:
…members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents…
Discounting the neutered midtermswhen only the composition of the House of Representatives can change, but not the Senate, much less the presidency, casting a vote once every three, four or five years is an exasperatingly indirect means of participating in the process of government. One-year terms, aside from being a signal reform—signalling the end of bought-and-paid-for politics—need to also herald more direct and meaningful means of participation. For example, a robust, binding referendum process that begins with commissions of inquiry examining evidence-based policy options, and culminates in preference voting on the resultant, expertly drafted legislation—somewhat like the process that led to the adoption of the mixed-member proportional electoral systemknown in New Zealand as MMP. This would prevent issues, such as the retirement age, becoming political footballs. Held concurrently with annual, concurrent elections, the cost would be less than New Zealand’s current twice-three-yearly election cycle, plus by-elections, plus separate referendumsapologies to the many who imagine that the plural of referendums is referenda, but particularly, to the sorry drafters of New Zealand’s even sorrier Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993.
With stringent limits on electoral spending—including consigning election hoardings to the dumpster of history—and online voting, one-year terms could be far less costly the current three-, four- or five-year extravaganzas, and, critically, not just in terms of election costs. Election campaigns are currently massively disruptive of government, but if representatives were expected to put in a full working yearin Aotearoa, 48 weeks, and be judged primarily on that year’s work like other mortals, parliaments, potentially, could become considerably more productive—not to mention more effective, including if at least some of that work was on legislation less laughably unconstitutional.
In the blatant unfairness of the pre-universal-suffrage-for-men, and pre-women’s-suffrage, eras, it was surely nigh on impossible for the Chartists and suffragettes, respectively, to imagine a world in which declining voter turnout threatened the very foundation of democracy. In November 1932, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party gained power after receiving 26.7% support of registered voters. In November this year, Donald Trump and the Republican Party has gained power with about the same, minority level of support. The strain it has already come under, with just the early effects of anthropogenic global warming, should be more than sufficient warning that, as currently practiced, democracy is not fit for service. Bought-and-paid-for representative democracy has proved to be incapable of curtailing fossil fuel consumption or even to begin preparing for what, well within this century, will rapidly become a increasingly unliveable climate. It should be deeply concerning to those who cherish freedom that autocratic China, to date, is beginning to meaningfully tackle fossil fuel use, but nominally democratic United States is not.
At the end of 2016, there are two interrelated existential questions neither of which can be answered except in hindsight. The first is largely scientific, but almost regardless of whether the currently woefully inadequate level of resourcespossibly little more than 0.04% of government spending in the United States, for example devoted to its study is rectified, because carbon dioxide has not been emitted nearly so quickly in all of paleoclimate history, just how quickly, and to what extent, regions of the planet become unliveable, including through inundation, is unknowable. The second unanswerable question is, to what extent will the Trump term of office contribute to what might already be out-of-control warming, by pouring further fossil fuel on the fire.
In his quest to make Germany great again, Hitler directly ordered or otherwise precipitated the deaths of 70–85 million people. A report commissioned by the United Nationsfrom Development Assistant Research Associates; DARA estimates that climate and carbon could be causing six million deaths per year by 2030, and may already be causing more than five million per year—more than half of these, it has to be said, caused by indoor smoke. But this climate attrition could be eclipsed if, as the scientists and economists of Earth League warn, the 1 in 10 risk of exceeding 6° by 2100 is realised. Even under enormous peer pressure and the effects of even more vodka, only a tiny percentage are prepared to literally play Russian roulette, with a six-shooter. Increase the number of chambers of the revolver to 10, and, despite the 6.6-recurring-percentage-point-better odds, it would take just as much peer pressure and vodka, or another, fully loaded, gun to the head, to force an other-than-desperately-suicidal soul to play.
An eight-year Trump presidency of the world’s greatest economy could precipitate billions of deaths. If catastrophic climate feedbacks kick in—if they haven’t done so already—it will only in hindsight that it will be known when those tipping points occurred. Given the enormous inertia in global climate—the heat capacity of the Earth’s oceans is a thousandfold that of its skinny atmosphere—even immediate, radical decarbonisation might not prove sufficient to save survivable temperatures, and it is already too late for the world’s ice sheets. But what can’t be turned around by the United States, could be by much smaller democracies, playing to their strengths, including by being quicker on the uptake. Aotearoa, historically, has led the world on positive change, such as representation for Māori, in 1867, and 26 years later for Māori and Pākehā women. Conversely, the country can also move quickly to implement negative change:
New Zealand, however, went further and faster than any other country in its restructuring programme; both ‘out-thatchering Thatcher’ in its embrace of market neoliberalism and significantly revamping its governance structures.
Similarly to what occurred on a grand scale in the United States, many New Zealanders have been left behind by neoliberalism, something Gareth Morgan is attempting to address via his Opportunities Party. Rapid reform of the political system is needed and, in Aotearoa is possible, to enable it to work for the interests of the children who will bear the brunt of an increasingly hostile climate, rather than in the interests of big oil. So long as big business can buy and pay for elections, little will change, regardless of whether Labour or National leads the next government. One may splash the greenwash around more liberally, but neither will significantly challenge the status quo for fear of impacting ‘the economy’.
As beautifully summarised by writer Tom Givón, democracy in the Golden Age was:
…spotty at best. The initial 100 years of Athenian democracy (505–403 BC) excluded 95 percent of the populace (slaves, women, non-natives, the poor), seesawing wildly between democracy, oligarchy and demagoguery.
Two millennia later, the Parliament that the Chartists sought to reform was recently represented by possibly less than 7% of the adult populationthe pre-1832 Reform Act electorate was 500,000 of a total population of 14 million, and this was progress, given the dictatorial proclivities of recent monarchssuch as Charles I, from 1629 to 1640. Excepting for its lapse regarding women’s suffrage, the People’s Charter, in 1838, uniquely brought together the essential reforms needed to complete the United Kingdom’s transition to a fully representative democracy. The Chartists would have doubly wept for those of their number killed, incarcerated or transported, were they to have foreseen that, within two centuries, the people would be giving up on democracy. The evidence is that the closer young people are to their enfranchisement birthday when they first get the opportunity to vote, the more of them develop a lifetime commitment to voting. Three years is a long time in the life of a 16-year-old, and four years is an eternity. Aside from keeping politicians honest, annual parliaments would be pivotal to reversing the slide in turnout.
Annual elections, lowering the age of suffrage to 16, and voting in schools, would soon see Aotearoa bucking the worldwide declining-voter-turnout trend and building a firm foundation from which to take world-leading, meaningful climate action.
There was no golden age of democracy, but there could be, and must be, now.