I am Graham Smith, Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. I run lots of research projects. One is on how to improve debates online. Another is how to involve ordinary people in big decisions like Brexit. I also teach students about democracy. I love teaching, researching and talking about democracy! You sent me some great questions. Thank you.
Q) Is voting the best way to solve issues? From quiet_horse, Arnhem Wharf Primary School
A) Voting is a good way to make decisions because everyone has the same power. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. Or what school or university you went to. One vote per person.
But it only really works well if the people who are voting have considered the relevant information before they vote and learned about what other people think. Democracy works best when we are curious and open-minded about other people’s views. Too often we just listen to people like ourselves. That’s when bad decisions can be made.
It is also important that when we vote, it is in secret. Otherwise people can put pressure on you to vote in a particular way or someone can pay you for your vote.
So, voting is a very good way of making decisions. But before we vote, we should have an opportunity to learn about the issue and talk to other people about what they think. This is true for you and me – and for our politicians.
Q) We often see people fighting for their rights. Why do they have to this even though we are part of a democracy? From outstanding_wolf, Richmond Hill Academy
A) You would hope that democracies would protect everyone’s rights. But that is not always the case. The history of democracy is the history of different groups fighting for their interests to be recognised and respected.
The rights of women is one example. The idea that women should not have the vote seems crazy now. But for centuries, men have been sceptical about whether women could reason and make good political decisions. It took long campaigns by the Suffragettes and others for women to have equal voting rights. In 1918 women finally got the vote. But only if they were over 30 and owned property. Ten years later, in 1928, women were given the same voting rights as men. Now almost a century later, feminists argue that while women have the same legal rights, they are not equal. Only 32 percent of Members of Parliament are women. Surely in a democracy that should be 50 percent? Women also run less of the large companies in the UK and earn less than men.
It’s not just women. If we look at parliament, we can also see very few young, black and minority ethnic, working class, non-university educated or LGBTQ+ politicians. That suggests that these groups are not being treated fairly in our society.
The founding principle of democracy is political equality. People who believe they are being treated unfairly can appeal to that principle. This is what makes democracy better than other forms of government. In an authoritarian regime, you cannot protest for your rights. In a democracy, you can shout on the streets and lobby politicians. Democracies are not perfect in protecting everyone’s rights, but they can change over time.
Good decisions take into account the different viewpoints that people hold. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. It means that everyone’s interests are considered.Graham Smith, University of Westminster
Q) Is democracy the quickest way to decide things? From smart_journalist, Arnhem Wharf Primary School
A) Democracy is definitely not the quickest way to make a decision. But it is the best way to make a political decision. When it works well, democracy makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Good decisions take into account the different viewpoints that people hold. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. It means that everyone’s interests are considered.
Authoritarian leaders can make decisions faster. But they don’t necessarily care what other people think.
Speed is not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes our politicians make decisions too fast, without considering everyone’s interests. They feel under pressure from the media to give a quick response. A slower, more considered process can mean that decisions are more widely supported. Slow is often better than fast when it comes to politics.
Q) Did Fake News cause Brexit? From blessed_computer, Graveney School
A) We haven’t left yet! At least not last time I looked.
Did you mean, did fake news impact on the Brexit referendum in 2017? If that is your question, then the answer is probably ‘yes’. Lots of untruths and half-truths were put forward by both sides. In some countries, they have independent officials who check the different claims that are made during referendums. Unfortunately, we don’t have that in the UK.
Fake news was posted on social media by both Leave and Remain supporters – and from outside the UK.
When I was young, social media didn’t exist, so it was harder to spread fake news. Now it is so much easier and quicker to spread a fake story.
The question I can’t answer is whether fake news changed the result. We don’t know which way it had an effect. We will probably never know whose fake news influenced most voters. All we do know is that in the age of the internet, fake news is a BIG problem for our democracy. We need to work out how to deal with it.