Democracy noun, a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power; typically through elected representatives.

Origin: Greek demokratia, from demos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’

– Oxford English Dictionary

Recently, I found myself sitting in the public gallery during a meeting of the City of Edinburgh Council, where I heard something which has been bothering me ever since. During a debate, one of the Conservative councillors criticised three of the other parties for making decisions based on ideology and the views of their constituents. According to the Tory councillor, this was an inexcusably irrational and populist; when it comes to major decisions affecting constituents’ lives, it is cowardly to consider this through the lens of either the values you campaigned on during an election, or the opinions of those constituents.

From the gallery, the arrogance of the councillor’s speech was obvious: our views are correct – so correct that we don’t need a mandate to justify them. The idea that the Tory councillor hadn’t based her own decision on ideology is vaguely ridiculous, but this is the type of argument that is being used to justify austerity measures. Rather than a moral or ethical choice, we are seeing decisions about the economy and government spending framed as issues of technical correctness, which politicians claim should be protected from the biases of… other politicians. The supposed neutrality of this stance is nothing more than rhetoric: the views of a political party are by definition ideological – they are the opinions of a group of people.

Thankfully, the Conservatives don’t have anything approaching a majority on the Council, and no one else was willing to adopt this point of view, but hearing it stated in the debating chamber of a democratic institution made me distinctly uncomfortable. Aren’t ideology and constituents’ views exactly the kind of thing that elected representatives are supposed to take into account when they make decisions? I’d always thought that this was how representative democracy worked.

What I heard in the Council Chambers a few days ago echoes what is happening across our political establishment: the main parties at Westminster are forgetting that representative democracy relies on them providing representation in order for it to be democratic. While only the most naïve would expect politicians to keep every single one of the manifesto promises, many of us feel betrayed by the outright lies that the current Westminster government told during their election campaigns. Nick Clegg signed pledges to abolish tuition fees, then helped to triple them; David Cameron had billboards announcing that he would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”, which has turned out to be wrong on both counts. Quite simply, they are not representing the people who elected them based on their stated views in May 2010.

When politicians take this attitude towards representation, it undermines our trust in them as individuals, but, more importantly, it makes it difficult for us to put any faith in representative democracy. This is a system which is based largely on trust: we’re supposed to trust politicians to represent us, according to the particular ideology of the party which got the most votes in their constituency. If they aren’t prepared to do that, then how can we say that they are a more legitimate form of government than an unelected ruler?

Unlike the Tory councillor, I’m not so arrogant as to claim that I have the one empirically correct answer, but I do think that we need to encourage serious debate about how we organise our democracy. If we admit that the current system doesn’t work as a means of allowing the general population to govern, then the first thing we need to decide is whether representative democracy just doesn’t work; or whether it can work, but we’re doing it wrong. I don’t think I’m ready to give up on representative democracy yet, but the current arrangements provide so little effective representation that we need radical reform at the very least.