I have a lot of questions about politics in Britain at the moment, and the current election. Among the more concerning to me is why democracy itself has been overlooked as an electoral issue.
The last three years have been utterly chaotic. We have seen the government taken to court to force it to allow Parliament to discuss Brexit, then Parliament reduced to farce as it struggles to find consensus. The government pro-rogued Parliament, then was told by the supreme court that it was illegal. It has sacked members of its own party for voting against it. The list goes on.
Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. Parliament is medieval in the ways it operates. The ‘first past the post’ voting system is unfit for purpose, repeatedly failing to deliver the stong majority governments which are the only argument for keeping it.
And yet, where is democracy in this election? It has been almost invisible in the public discussion.
This is strange, because it is clear that it isn’t working and we know it. A poll released this week asked people if British democracy was working. 85% of us think it needs considerable improvement:
- It is working extremely well and could not be improved (2%)
- It could be improved in small ways but is generally working well (14%)
- It could be improved quite a lot (35%)
- It needs a great deal of improvement (50%)
The majority of us also feel left out of decision making processes – backing up what I was writing about yesterday with the ladder of participation. Asked how much influence voters feel they have over decision making in Britain, 80% feel they have little or no influence.
- Great deal of influence (2%)
- Some influence (13%)
- Not very much influence (40%)
- No influence at all (40%)
- Don’t know (5%)
Given those findings, you would think there would be a vibrant debate around fixing Britain’s democracy. You would think the parties would be clamouring to explain how they can bring about the changes we need and give people back the power.
That doesn’t appear to be the case, though it does appear in the manifestos. The Conservatives mention it, largely because they want to stop Parliament from thwarting Brexit. They promise to “support the First Past the Post system of voting, as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver”, which I’m pretty sure is a non-sequitur. I’m not sure how other voting systems don’t allow you to vote out politicians.
The Conservatives also promise unspecified “measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections”, while refusing to release a report on exactly that. They talk about a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission, but in the context of protecting “the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state”, which seems to be missing the point. Plans for voter ID, boundary changes, and keeping the voting age at 18 are changes that would potentially work in their favour. No mention of the House of Lords, and ending the scandal of hereditary peers for life.
Labour, meanwhile, offer to finish the job they started in the 90s and end hereditary peerage. They suggest a “UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly.” I would support that, along with decentralising power to regions. No mention of electoral reform, because it is currently broken in ways that work for the Labour party. Labour knows this, and they choose to ignore the issue rather than championing First past the post the way the Tories do. But it’s conspicuously absent in an otherwise progressive manifesto, and the self-serving failure to support electoral reform is an ugly aspect of the Labour party.
The Liberal Democrats do better here, as usual. They advocate “a written constitution for a federal United Kingdom”, which I think is an inevitability. Eventually we will do this. They also promise electoral reform, unspecified reform to the House of Lords, and would make it impossible for the government to suspend Parliament without its consent.
The Green Party summarise their position as “Replacing First Past the Post with a proportional voting system, giving 16-year-olds the vote, reforming government to better combat the Climate Emergency and devolving power to councils.” Fully elected House of Lords, and new transparency rules on lobbying and political funding also feature.
These issues are not overlooked in the party manifestos. They are presumably being ignored in the media, or we’re just not asking the question. Perhaps we’re so used to having no influence in politics that we’ve given up asking for more of a say.
Today the Electoral Reform Society, of which I’m a member, has joined with other democratic organisations to hold ‘Democracy Day‘. It’s time to talk about our democracy. It looks distinctly undervalued in the current debate, and when democracy is undervalued, it is even easier for it to erode without us noticing.
- Unlock Democracy have a petition for a written constitution here.