democracy politics

Ten steps forward in British democracy

The kids are in bed, my journalist wife is off for a long night at the mid-Bedfordshire count for the local BBC station, and I am musing on democracy. As usual on election night.

Perhaps what strikes me most is the people who have missed the event entirely. Lou’s hairdresser didn’t know it was happening. The man in the corner shop knew about it because our MP popped in recently, but he didn’t know it was today. For all the hype, a whole third of the country won’t bother to vote, if the last couple of elections are anything to go by.

The 65% or so who do vote can be roughly divided into three between the Conservatives, Labour, and the others. Counting total population rather than votes cast, it means that whoever ends up as Prime Minister, no more than a quarter of us actually get what we want.

I’m pretty sure we can do better than that.

We know the sorts of things we need to do – finish the job on Lords reform, update parliamentary procedures, change our voting system, make constituency boundaries fairer, and there are a host of things we could do to increase turnout and voter engagement.

While to democratic to-do list remains long and daunting, we shouldn’t forget what we have achieved already. Thinking back, there have been a lot of positive developments since I’ve been old enough to pay attention. You may detect some barrel scraping towards the end, but I wondered if I could think of ten, and here’s what I came up with:

  1. The devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has been a major step forward in British democracy. Regional parliaments give people a much more direct connection to government, and we’re not done devolving power yet either.
  2. The hereditary peers are gone, pretty much, from the House of Lords. It’s amazing that it took until the end of the 20th century to do it, but the land-owning aristocracy no longer sit above our elected parliament.
  3. Scandals notwithstanding, Parliament is much more transparent about expenses than it has been before.
  4. Gordon Brown effectively surrendered the right to take the nation to war without parliamentary consent. That’s a significant power to hand over, and perhaps it means our centuries of British adventurism on foreign soil are finally behind us.
  5. As of about six weeks ago, MPs can be recalled for the first time. Again, it’s extraordinary that it took until 2015, but if your MP gets sent to jail, falsifies their expenses or is deemed to be in breach of standards, they can now be sacked. (For what it’s worth, the promised register of lobbyists opened this spring too.)
  6. Fixed term parliaments mean that Prime Ministers can no longer prolong their time in office by calling a snap election at a time that suits them.
  7. Many cities now have an elected mayor, with referendums used to let towns and cities decide a model for local government.
  8. Members of parliamentary select committees are now elected, rather than appointed by ministers, meaning they are much better equipped to hold government accountable to parliament.
  9. It’s a bit early to tell how the idea is working, but Police accountability is much more direct through the elected Police commissioners that David Cameron introduced in the last parliament.
  10. This was what the televised election debate looked like in 2010:2010 debate
    And this is what it looked like in 2015:

2015 debate

Not all of those things are entirely popular, and I’ll admit that some of them have created problems as well as solving them. The thing to remember though is that we capable of reforming government. Some of the things on that list are huge, historic steps forward. If we were able to deliver Welsh and Scottish parliaments and end centuries of hereditary peerage, we can fix out electoral system.


  1. I think the push towards PR in the UK will fall back now. Not now we have a single party majority government. The new standard bearers for PR are UKIP.

    1. And I wonder how many PR advotaces will change their turn when we would have woken up on 8 May to a Tory/UKIP coalition.

      1. The self-serving ones would. If you accept representative government as a democratic principle, you have to suck it up when people you don’t like get voted in.

  2. Speaking of it completely passing people by: I worked in a polling station. One of the voters came in, with his polling card, and after I’d handed him the ballot papers he told me he didn’t know what was happening. Seemed genuinely surprised there was an election.

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