Something often seen in corrupt and autocratic regimes is a system that resembles democracy but is subject to an element of social coercion to ensure that the results of supposedly free votes help to maintain the existing order. As I discussed here before, there’s a whole field in international relations that discusses the idea of the selectorate theory, and how autocratic regimes use the distribution of public and private goods to reward their supporters and keep them loyal. The public might be presented with a choice of parties that they can back at elections, but they’ll be reminded that only by voting the right way can they ensure that they’ll get their share of government resources. They can vote for the opposition parties and not be directly punished for it, but the rewards for complying with the government will go elsewhere. (There’s a lot more detail and examples of this in The Dictator’s Handbook
Of course, that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in proper democracies like Britain. Here, people are encouraged to vote for whoever they want, safe in the knowledge that the governing party won’t seek to reward those who vote for them and punish those who don’t.
It’d be nice if someone told Michael Gove that, though. He was in Colchester last week and spoke to the local paper. During his interview he said:
Colchester is growing dramatically and needs investment in its infrastructure.
A Conservative council will be able to make that case and will always get a sympathetic hearing.
The implication is quite clear – the borough needs things, but needs to have a Conservative council to get ‘a sympathetic hearing’ if it wants to actually get them. This is the politics of the protection racket, a warning to vote the right way if you want to get things. It’s not surprising that Conservatives think this way – I’ve seen too much of them in operation to be shocked – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of the Cabinet make a statement like that.
It’s the ultimate end point of the Conservative vision of localism, where you’re free locally to tell the Government just how much you agree with them, and they’ll reward you for the level of enthusiasm you show. It does a good job of looking like democracy on the surface, but it’s a pretty long way from it underneath.