Can democracy work without trust?

People are losing trust in democracy at a time when we most need strong inclusive leadership from people elected to represent us in our parliaments.

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Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Our democracies will be put to the test 61 times this year in presidential or parliamentary elections.

And each day our governments will be put to the test as they respond to a convergence of crises. The climate emergency, unregulated technology, inequality and the sheer scale of corporate power has created an age of anger.

Add to that list the ever-growing global threat that the Coronavirus or another pandemic could cause loss of life and economic damage so catastrophic that world leaders will struggle to provide a response.

The imperative to act on climate is a matter of human survival, but without Just Transition measures that ensure security for workers, their families and their communities the confidence in and support of the global and local shifts required will not be realised.

Likewise, the waves of technological change with digitalisation and artificial intelligence, robotry and automation hold vast opportunities but equally hold workforce challenges that also require Just Transition along with ethical and regulatory decisions that will determine whether we ensure human control, or allow technological determinism, to shape our future.

And even as we confront these urgent challenges, we face the deep anger and a consequent lack of trust in democracy fuelled by the despair of inequality, insecurity and a breakdown in trust of governments. Indeed, people are on the streets in every continent, confronting prices of food, transport and housing they simply cannot afford while watching the one per cent rake in the world’s wealth. And too often peaceful protest means we face authoritarian oppression that in some countries looks like a civil war where only one side has weapons.

This is a tragedy of greed: a world that is three times richer than it was just 30 years ago and yet has failed to share that prosperity with the people. More people will go to bed hungry tonight than world leaders will tell you have been lifted out of poverty.

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Source: ILO based on European Commission (AMECO data)

Labour income share has systematically slumped since the early 1990s, and minimum wage levels and collective bargaining have suffered a sustained attack from too many employers, governments and international institutions.

We have a failed economic model that has left people without jobs, or with insecure jobs that are increasingly low paid and often unsafe. Sixty per cent of the world’s workforce are working informally, and that now goes beyond poorer countries to include workers in platform business, big tech and tech spinoffs, and that’s without the dehumanising exploitation of the global supply chains on which trade depends — where informal work and modern slavery is increasing.

The social contract has been torn apart.

Quite simply, governments have failed to regulate the labour market, and too many governments, cowered by big business and believing in the failed ideology that ‘growth will trickle down’ have directly attacked or allowed attacks on human rights, labour rights, wages and the social security of their own people.

When we also consider the failure to regulate global finance to rein in speculation or use competition policy to regulate global tech monopolies who are offering sub-standard jobs, it is not hard to understand people’s cynicism and the consequent backlash against globalisation.

But a retreat into nationalism is not the solution. Changing the rules of the global economy and ensuring rights and environmental standards as a basis for fair trade and investment is.

Without global rules, working people will continue to face the multiple realities of the climate crisis through the devastation of extreme weather events or changing seasons and the despair of the impoverished jobs on offer.

People in too many countries also face increasing governments who can be characterized as authoritarianism, dictatorships or fascist regimes.

The ITUC Global Rights Index shows ever more countries closing democratic space and denying fundamental rights. Born of a loss of hope, people are questioning democracy as a system!

We need to rebuild our democracies. It is essential that government accountability to their people’s goes beyond GDP to rebuild trust. Such accountability must include full employment, living standards, wages, social protection, vital public services such as education, health and care — people’s concerns. New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland are on this journey and we will campaign for many more cities, regions and countries to join them, Trust in democracy can only be restored if people sit at the heart of governance.

Many citizens are tired of conventional orthodox policies; they want change, and they will choose new political parties as a way to achieve this.

For the international trade union movement, democracy is in our DNA. But unless we use it and build trust in democracy, transparent accountable governments and the rule of law, we put at risk the very foundation of our societies.

That’s why in 2020 we’re starting a series of citizen conversations about democracy. From looking at new ways to reframe government planning and reporting to campaigning for the first universal suffrage elections in fifty years in Somalia we want to increase the number of people who feel that their voice matters and that governments are acting in their interests.

Your voice matters. That’s the fundamental principle of democracy — we all have an equal say and an equal vote. Democracy also needs active and engaged citizens.

Let’s start right here, right now, the choice to act is ours!

If you feel your government is not listening to you or your community what is one thing that your government could do to restore your trust in democracy?

Written by

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.

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