Archive for September 2012

What is ‘democracy’?

September 13, 2012

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

I have had a number of interesting comments regarding my suggestion made in Speakers’ Corner two weeks ago that the Kennel Club should scrap the current Councils and replace them with an Independent Advisory Council (IAC). I proposed that anyone could be a member of the organisation set up to elect the Council which would have authority as it would be set up by and part funded by the KC although it would be independent. It would save the KC money because the Councils are administratively quite costly and have the advantage of creating a genuinely democratic organisation with which Clarges Street could have a useful and productive dialogue.

The questions have come thick and fast. What would be the point? Surely the KC will do what it wants anyway? How could such a Council be ‘independent’? What is the difference between the IAC and the Canine Alliance and other groups recently set up to ‘represent’ breeders and exhibitors? The KC is not a democratic organisation – surely it should be reconstituted so that it represents everyone?

These are valid questions but the answers are complicated by the fact that democracy itself often accorded a simplistic definition which is unrealistic in the modern world. ‘One man/woman: one vote’ sounds good and it would be good if the concept worked in real life, but it does not outside a relative restricted series of circumstances. Why should this be? With small groups one person one vote on any issue is fine – although it is seldom satisfactory.

Imagine a small committee responsible for running a dog show. The last one made a loss: do you put the entry fee up to cover a predicted loss in the coming year, leave it the same on the basis that things might get better and a different panel of judges attract an increased entry or reduce it in the hope that exhibitors will be attracted by a lower fee. The discussion will take some time for there will be ten different views (only three options but I promise you there will be different reasons for each selecting ‘their’ option and each will think they are right. There is no way of knowing for sure so a vote is taken: four for an increase, three to keep the entry fee the same and three to reduce it. Is this democracy? It may be in the purest terms but there is no guarantee that the decision is the right one. Might it have been better for the Treasurer and the Show Manager to have taken the decision on the grounds that there position give them greater insight and that, presumably, they are more experienced? Possibly – but that would not be democratic.

The Quaker approach

This is a very straight forward example (which assumes that the committee has been elected by the members of the society holding the show) but already the ‘democratic process’ can be seen to be flawed. My own approach having had some experience of being a Chairman of a number of groups is the one taken by Quakers. In Quaker meetings you almost never have a vote – you keep discussing the matter until a consensus emerges. Its takes longer but provides a more satisfactory solution – although that does not mean it is the right one!

Now let us look at the wider picture. There is much discussion about the boundaries of the current UK constituencies. The reason is that that people move. Each constituency is supposed to consist of X number of people where X is approximately equal to the numbers represented by one member of parliament. Once you ‘set’ the boundaries those people elect their MP and for most constituencies, because of their social make-up there will be a tendency for the majority to vote one way. Constituencies such a Henley or Guildford will always elect a conservative MP whereas those in inner cities will usually elect a Labour MP. Others, with a particular ‘mix’ or a charismatic candidate will not follow the pattern (Twickenham and Brighton are good examples) but usually the government of the day is selected by those in the ‘marginal’ seats where there is a near equal balance differing views. This mean that just a handful of constituencies (and therefore just a handful of people) decide the direction of policy at each election when it has often been the case that if you add up the totals of all the votes another party should have been in power. The boundary changes being proposed could ‘shift’ the balance of power from one party to another: is this democracy?

You could argue that this does not matter much because so many decisions are taken by local government but I can assure you that the same pattern applies here and there is plenty of evidence of attempts to ‘fix’ power with the ‘right’ party. Northern Ireland is the best example but it is not so long ago that Westminster City Council deliberately tried to do the same by stealth. More open has been the move to Unitary Councils on the grounds that they are more efficient. This may be true but the effect has been a significant change in the colour of local authorities. Is this democracy?

Comparing national government and the Kennel Club

Going back to our own concerns and looking at the model of the UK constitution we can see that the Kennel Club has used the same mechanisms. A great deal of power and responsibility is devolved to the various canine associations – and there are many hundreds – who have special or local interests. The breed, the general show societies, training clubs, and working and field trial associations among others manage their own affairs and just as local government has access to national government through the various ministries and consultancy groups (they do not all have direct access – that would not be feasible – but they work in partnership with groups which represent their interest) so the authorised clubs have access in the same way to sub committees through the KC Councils.

Let us take this all a stage further. Governments come in for a great deal of criticism and they use a number of ways to counter it. Judicial enquiries and the occasional Royal Commission, paid for by the government, take evidence and come to conclusions. The current enquiry into phone hacking and the press is a good example which has been extremely revealing – and very uncomfortable for all political parties. But my point is that the independence of the Leveson Inquiry has not been compromised because the government has been paying for it. It is, in fact, evidence of the democracy attempting to compensate for the lack of true democracy in the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom.

Note that all canine clubs are member organisations – you cannot just walk in off the street and vote or join a committee. Most of those clubs have a mechanism that prevents all and sundry from taking part so new members have to be proposed and seconded. The Kennel Club is exactly the same. You may say that it is difficult to become a member. This is not the case – anyone can join if they have a proposer and seconder – and is prepared to pay the membership fee which is about 25% of the cost of a single puppy each year.
Once a member, the Kennel Club is democratic and the new requirements that are demanded of a company limited by guarantee will mean that elections and AGM motions in the future will not only be placed firmly in the hands of the members but the process will be in the hands of an independent outside body – the Electoral Reform Society which successful provides this service for thousands of organisations.

Interests and lobby groups – which do you support?

Government is plagued by interest and lobby groups. The RSPCA is one such but there are many thousands. One of the tasks of government is to surf through suggestions and proposals to see whether any have any validity and, if they do, what would be the effect on the electorate. Governments want to stay in power. Unless forced by circumstance so that they have no choice (the current economic crisis is a good example) they will not do anything which may reduce their support at any coming election. And many of the lobby groups’ interests are not in the interests of us, the citizens – and the RSPCA again provides many examples of policies they would like to see enacted which might be good for animals but would certainly be very restrictive and (if pet ownership is seriously restricted) could have a serious and damaging effect on our well being.
At the same time our lobby group (the Kennel Club) is busy trying to persuade the government not to go down the RSPA/PETA/animals rights road and trying to persuade the media to take a balanced view of dog ownership, showing and breeding. It is a hard road.

I think the KC is doing the best it can with the money it has at its disposal – money provided by all of us and some who, perhaps, breed more litters than others feel is reasonable but this does not mean that it must not continually work to ensure that it is truly reflecting the ideas and views of its constituents. And this means all of them – not just the ones who shout the loudest. It already has two of its own Levesons on its books – coat testing and the registration structure while there are many ongoing issues which have to be addressed such as health and welfare. Whatever is decided on these matters is not going to gain the approval of everyone so any attempt to get closer to you and me has to be a good thing.
I look forward to the open meetings the KC is restarting in September. Will there be a good turnout representing across the board interests or just a few people with a lot to say about what, in the context of this article, are rather narrowly defined issues (in the event there were only 28 present at the first meeting). This does not mean those narrowly defined issues are not important – just that we must keep them in perspective.

Now let us look at my suggestion about an Independent Advisory Council again. Would you join an organisation, supported by the KC, which freely elected committees and subcommittees whose deliberations would reflect its members view (only its members of course – anyone could join but many will not although they will continue to snipe from the sidelines) which would be guaranteed to have its deliberations taken seriously and considered carefully by our governing body?
Now there is a question I would like to know the answer to.