Failure to reform our electoral system has undermined our democracy and weakened social cohesion. First-past-the-post voting with a plurality of parties means that most UK governments are elected without the support of a majority of the votes cast. Indeed, low turnout combined with the first past the post system makes it possible to control the House of CoView Postmmons with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. The two main parties, with no real need to reach beyond core supporters and floating voters in marginal constituencies, have, as a result, continued to resist meaningful reform. This encourages polarised positions designed to enthuse party conferences and donors and a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats, effectively ignoring large sections of the electorate.
The growing divorce between the political establishment and the public at large has been reflected in, and reinforced by, the long term decline in the number of people who belong to parties – which dropped by 66% between 1980 and 2009. One effect of this has been to make the Westminster parties increasingly dependent on donations from wealthy organisations and individuals, which grew from £44 million before the 2005 election to £72 million in 2010 and £100 milion in 2015. The development of pervasive and often non-transparent and unaccountable social media channels has opened up new sources of information for ordinary electors, but also vastly increased the opportunities for wealthy lobbies to manipulate the political process.
A fossilised system
The fossilisation of our electoral system has sharply increased the twin threats of exit from the European Union and the breakup of the UK. And the more perverse the results of the system, the greater the vested interest MPs have in resisting meaningful reform. A fresh mobilisation is needed in British politics to break the logjam and restore power to the electorate.
Turnout in elections has declined sharply over the past half century and, after the US, the United Kingdom has the lowest level of participation of any of the major democracies. In parts of Western Europe, up to 88% of the electorate use their right to vote but in Britain, this figure fell to 59% in 2001 and was only 69% in June 2017. Most of the 31% of those on the register who failed to vote were among the poor, the young and those who depend most on public services for their health and welfare.
It is no coincidence that, of the major democracies, the two countries with first past the post voting systems, the UK and the US, also have the lowest turnout in elections and the most unequal distribution of wealth. Sound research has demonstrated a clear correlation between proportional voting systems and greater equality: wealth follows power. This must be the starting point for a radical agenda to tackle disadvantage and create the foundations for a society of opportunity for all.
For most of the 150 years following the Great Reform Bill of 1832, with two large national parties and regional parties with supporters concentrated in a few constituencies, the number of seats won by each party broadly reflected the votes cast. Each won roughly one seat in Parliament for every 30-40,000 votes it received.
But in recent elections, with up to five parties with over a million supporters, this balance has broken down. We claim to live in a democracy, but the Conservative Party won the 2015 election outright with less than 37% of the votes cast. In Scotland, 50% of the electorate voted SNP but elected 95% of the MPs. Even after tactical voting had eroded their support at the ballot box, the three largest minor parties polled 24.3% of the votes in 2015, but won only 1.5% of the seats in parliament.
In the 2017 General Election, the Conservative Party won 49% of the seats with 42% of the vote with the Conservative and Labour Parties between them polling some 85% of the votes but winning 97% of the seats.
Electoral reform has dropped off the political agenda for two reasons: first, the public rejected a system of proportional voting in a referendum in May 2011. However, the referendum of 2011 was not on the principle of adopting fair voting, but simply offered the Alternative Vote (AV), a complicated system chosen as a result of horse trading between the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. It involved abandoning cherished features of our democracy and could have resulted in outcomes even more unfair than First Past the Post. Indeed, the Electoral Reform Society has determined that had the 2015 election been conducted on the basis of AV, the Conservative Party, with the same number of first choice votes, would have ended up with an even larger majority than it did with the existing system.
But the principal reason why reform is not on the agenda is that the large parties in Westminster have a vested interest in blocking reform. Party leaders know that implementing the policies activists and donors demand would not be possible with a fair electoral system. And party managers and MPs elected with as few as 24% of the votes cast from some of our latter-day rotten boroughs, have good reason to fear reform: 27 of the 56 SNP MPs elected in 2015 would not have been in Parliament had the election been conducted on the basis of a fair voting system.
But the fact that a Westminster cabal is opposed to democratic reform is not a reason for concerned citizens not to demand it. Indeed, all the radical reforms which laid the foundations for our modern democracy were bitterly opposed by the political elite. Citizen power may not work quickly, but with determination and time, in a society governed by law, a velvet revolution can become irresistible.
Five principles for fair voting
The Radical Party’s proposals for reform are based on the following principles:
- the number of MPs elected for each party should reflect the number of votes cast for the party concerned: as far as possible, every vote should count;
- the system should enable electors to vote for the party they want to win without being obliged to choose between voting tactically or wasting their votes;
- no candidate should be deemed to be elected until he or she has received the support of 50% of the votes cast;
- the system should make it possible for popular independents and representatives of action groups with strong local support to be elected;
- it should not involve party lists with the cronyism and patronage they bring – candidates should be selected by local people in the constituencies where they stand;
- it should prevent extreme fragmentation, which could give tiny parties and wealthy party donors disproportionate influence.
Respecting these principles, the Party proposes that:
- any candidate receiving more than 50% of the votes in a constituency is elected forthwith to represent that constituency;
- in all other constituencies, a run off ballot is then held between the candidates who came first and second in the first ballot to determine who is to become the MP;
- the number of MPs representing parties which would otherwise be under-represented after the second ballot is topped up from those receiving the highest number of votes in their constituencies in the first ballot;
- to prevent a proliferation of small parties, a threshold is established below which a party would not elect any MPs (apart from any receiving more than 50% of the votes in their own constituencies);
- by-elections where no candidate received 50% of the votes cast in the first ballot, would likewise be determined by a runoff ballot, as in a general election.
This system would require that the total number of MPs (but not constituencies) would vary somewhat from one Parliament to the next. The top up MPs would serve alongside the winning candidate in their own constituencies. This would reflect the fact that multi-member constituencies are already a common feature of our constitutional practice, for example in local authorities and in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont. They existed in some Parliamentary seats in England until the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, the total number of MPs has changed on numerous occasions over the years.
With one MP for every 96,000 residents, compared to 154,000 in Australia, 188,000 in France, 129,000 in Germany, 227,000 in Japan and 722,000 in the United States, UK has one of the highest number of MPs in relation to its population of any major democracy. Besides wasting resources, this has had a number of very negative consequences; in particular, it has contributed to the low estime in which the House of Commons is held and has encouraged MPs to take on other work, fueling the risk of conflicts of interest. Under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act of 2013, a review of the number of constituencies is due to be completed by October 2018 with a proposal to reduce the number to 600, but this, if enacted, will still leave the UK substantially over-represented compared with comparable countries.
As part of its proposals to strengthen, democratise and raise the prestige of the Parliament, the Party proposes that the total number of constituencies be reduced thorough future Boundary Commission reviews to a total of 500, which, with a fair voting system, would lead to a somewhat higher total number MPs. At the same time, the Commission should be charged with developing proposals to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, as an important step towards creating a fair electoral system. The Party proposes that:
- the number of constituencies should be reduced from the current 650 to 500, to reflect the number of lower chamber deputies in comparable democracies;
- the Boundaries Commission be charged with equalising the number of electors in each constituency.
Extending the franchise
The Radical Party considers that extending the franchise to those aged between 16 and 18 would enrich our democracy and encourage young people to engage with civil society at a formative time of life.
The funding and management of elections in the UK is controlled by precise regulations, which monitor different categories of spending based on returns and require agents and candidates to declare expenditure in some cases to the level of pennies spent. Tight limits apply to spending on promoting individual candidates and these are strictly enforced by the Electoral Commission and, ultimately, by the courts. Moreover, the ceiling on such spending is modest: in the region of £15,000 per parliamentary constituency.
But a glance at billboards and headlines at election time makes clear that the current regulations are far from achieving the level playing field essential for genuine democracy. They amount to little more than locking the cat flap while the back door stands wide open. While imposing tight limits on promoting individual candidates, they also allow up to £19.5 million (if a party were to contest all 650 constituencies) to be spent on national campaigning. This hugely enhances the influence of donors and encourages party managers to find ways to manipulate the system, for example, by shipping teams of party workers into marginal constituencies.
A second issue is that most national papers in Britain (unlike, for example, in Germany where most papers are owned by trusts) are controlled by very wealthy individuals who can strongly influence what information and opinions are seen by electors. The question of the content of newspapers is an issue which goes beyond the remit of electoral law and raises complex questions of freedom of the press, pluralism and choice. However, it is not just front pages and editorials that shape the outcome of elections. Under current law, a poster promoting a particular party or denigrating another that is paid for by a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker comes under electoral spending limits, while a billboard paid for by a newspaper magnate does not!
The Party proposes that:
- the present tight limit on spending in support of particular candidates should be retained;
- national spending in any constituency should be limited to £10,000.
The House of Commons
Since 2008, the reputation of the House of Commons has been mired by a succession of scandals involving conflicts of interest, allegations of falsified expenses and tax fiddles. A few of those involved were held to account, but most were simply allowed to lie low for a period and then return – in some cases to take up prominent places in government. As a result, surveys indicate that politicians are now less trusted than any other professional group. Following public outrage over these incidents, oversight was strengthened by the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Scrutiny Authority in 2009. New rules governing expenses were introduced through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010. These steps have improved transparency and led to a reduction in the coverage of MPs’ expenses in the media.
A further issue that has brought the House of Commons into disrespect is paid insider lobbying; something which would be wholly unacceptable in any normal job. MPs, as individuals are, doubtless, ethically neither better or worse than anyone else and, since the expenses scandal, the main issue is not a failure to enforce the existing system. The real problem is that the rules that MPs have agreed for themselves are so lax as to permit behaviour which is not in the public interest and which the public reasonably consider to be outrageous.
The public find it hard to see how Members who earn tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds a year acting as lobbyists or as hired guns for newspaper magnates can at the same time be working whole-heartedly in the interests of their constituents. The British Government regularly condemns corruption and poor standards of governance in other parts of the World. It should balance this by ensuring that its own parliamentarians observe conflict of interest standards at least as high as those which are taken for granted by the employees of all public authorities and properly run listed companies.
Pay for MPs was one of the demands of the early Radicals and it remains essential that it is fixed at a level sufficient to permit candidates without private wealth to be elected without suffering a critical drop in earnings or exposing them to the temptation to seek to peddle influence. Resolving this issue will increase accountability and the status of MPs, ensure that people from all walks of life can stand for Parliament, and require that being an MP becomes a full time job.
The Party, proposes that:
- it be made a criminal offence for MPs to accept payment to represent outside interests;
- being an MP is treated as a full-time job;
- MPs are required to donate any outside earnings from sources which are relevant to parliamentary business, such as journalism and television appearances, to charity;
- the rules covering gifts from interested parties are revised to meet the standards required of civil servants and employees of ethically run companies, with the regulation requiring gifts worth over £300 to be declared being replaced by a straightforward prohibition on any treating or gifts;
- all lobbying of ministers and senior civil servants should be subject to legally enforceable regulations on transparency, disclosure and publicly accessible record keeping;
- all lobbying should be subject to appropriate rules relating to record keeping and transparancy;
- enforceable rules should be introduced to prevent recent ex-MPs from seeking to influence ministers or civil servants on behalf of clients during an appropriate quarantine period;
- the maximum parliamentary term should be reduced from five to four years;
- MPs’ salaries should be increased from the current level of £74,000 per year to the equivalent of the average earned by GP partners (currently around £100,000 a year).
The House of Lords
In many respects, the House of Lords carries out its relatively modest duties well. It draws on impressive experience and expertise in reviewing draft legislation. It plays a healthy role in occasionally forcing the Government to think again by delaying questionable proposals, so challenging the whipped dictatorship of the majority in the Commons. And, on occasion, it provides a channel for talented people from outside professional politics to be brought in as ministers accountable to Parliament.
But it is also an affront to democracy. Apart from one brief period in the last few years, it has had a permanent Conservative majority bolstered by a self-perpetuating core of, predominantly very wealthy, hereditary peers. It is wholly unrepresentative of the population at large in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, income and social origins. In its present form, it discredits Parliament and is incompatible with the message the Government promotes around the world in favour of meaningful democracy.
How not to reform the Lords
The situation cries out for reform, but what should be done? The solution advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats of an elected Upper House only makes sense if one believes a parliamentary system with 1,400 elected members would be more accountable than one with 650. While providing a fresh tier of patronage for party managers, the profile of candidates would be identical to those for the Commons, but generally of poorer quality. It is hard to imagine that experienced and independent-minded people would expose themselves to the rough and tumble of election on the chance of joining such a body. Moreover, history suggests that, whatever safeguards were imagined, elected members would seek by every means to extend their powers, raising the spectre of the horse-trading, closet deals and periodic deadlock, which bedevil countries with powerful elected upper chambers, such as Australia and the United States.
The Radical Party rejects the view that the only alternative to doing nothing is doing something that is clearly foolish. It believes that it is possible to create a system which retains the good features of the current House of Lords and does not undermine the authority of the Commons. The solution to the dilemma lies in accepting that the roles of the Commons and the upper chamber are, and should remain, different: the Commons embodies the principle of democracy. It proposes new laws based on a programme endorsed by the electorate, and eventually decides – but only after submitting them to an independent upper chamber for detailed review.
A better way
The solution to the problem lies in accepting that, in democratic terms, the UK has always had a unicameral system. It is not unusual in this: in fact, a number of countries which are seen as models of democratic best practice, including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, perform very well with only a single chamber. The Radical Party’s solution to the dilemma of how to build on the good features of the current system without duplicating or undermining the Commons, is to abandon the objective of turning the Lords into a dilute version of the elected lower chamber. Instead it should become a body which is democratic in the sense that any citizen can be considered for appointment to it and that its members are substantially representative of the population as a whole – not in terms of party allegiance (which would be reflected in a Commons elected through a genuinely proportional voting system), but in term of key social parameters such as gender, ethnicity, income and locality.
The Party proposes that:
- as a first step, the link between the honours system and membership of the upper house and the system of topping up hereditary peers and bishops who leave the Lords, should be ended;
- measures should be adopted to require less active peers to retire with a view to reducing their number as quickly as possible, and according to an agreed timetable, from the present figure of around 800 to a target of 400;
- after a transition period, voting membership of the upper chamber should be made up entirely of people with experience and expertise relevant to the chamber’s functions selected from those nominated by an independent commission with a clear mandate from Parliament to ensure that new appointments reflect the gender, ethnic, income, geography and other characteristics of the population at large, with women taking 50% of the seats;
- any citizen who is on the electoral register and who voted in the previous general election should be eligible for nomination to the reformed upper chamber;
- any citizen who is on the electoral register should be entitled to nominate candidates for appointment to the chamber, provided that the nomination was seconded by an agreed number of registered electors;
- appointment would be for a ten year term for all new appointments, and for existing members for a maximum of five years from the date of the introduction of the reform, with the proviso that any peers appointed in the last ten years should be entitled to serve for a total of up to ten years.
- the Prime Minister would be entitled to nominate ministers who were not members of the House of Commons to attend sessions of the upper chamber to debate, but not to vote on, issues within their fields of rsponsibility.
Those of the democracies which have second chambers offer a whole menagery of different ways of selecting their members, none of which are beyond criticism and each of which has its own particular drawbacks (see Dialogue July 2018). The Radical Party considers that the system outlined above would produce an upper chamber which reflected the makeup of the electorate as a whole, was complementary to, and not in competition with, the Commons, and which could draw both on high levels of knowledge and expertise and the common sense and shared experience of life of the public at large. As such it would, at the very least, avoid the serious problems raised by the proposal for an elected second house, be effective within the modest parameters of its legitimate role, and would be a great deal more acceptable in democratic terms than the present upper chamber.
A healthy democracy demands not just a fair electoral system for Parliament, but genuine democratic engagement at all levels of society. The erosion of local democracy has been a key feature of the neo-conservative experiment promoted by Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair and has gone hand in hand with a decline in participation in locally rooted organisations such as trade unions, consumer co-operatives, religious bodies and local political party branches.
A vibrant culture of grass roots democratic engagement, which once provided a ladder into politics for exceptional people from across society, has withered away. Instead of harnessing social change in a positive way, successive governments have made local government a scapegoat and have pursued policies which undermine it.
The Radical Party believes that local democracy should be modernised and rebuilt by:
- raising the status of elected local representatives and honouring those who, irrespective of political persuasion, give their free time to seving their communities by permitting long serving councillors with strong records of service to keep the title of councillor for life (as doctors and senior military officers already do);
- reforming the electoral system to ensure that the makeup of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast;
- wherever compatible with efficiency and value for money, powers should be devolved from central government and quangos, creating an expanding range of opportunities for ordinary members of the public to take decisions on behalf of their communities;
- strategic responsiblity for primary and secondary education, the NHS, the Police and economic development should be transferred to elected regional authorities.
The system which applies across most of the country, whereby local government functions are divided between district and county councils, is bureaucratic, wasteful and poorly understood. A division of responsibilities which is incomprehensible to most voters cannot be good for democracy and should be reformed. With the introduction of every-vote-counts local elections, the partisan motive for opposition to this change would diminish as most authorities would be controlled by coalitions. This reform would also help to address the issue of finding sufficient able candidates to stand in local elections, an increasing problem in recent years as local authorities have been marginalised.
A key feature of the Thatcher/Blair experiment was the transfer of decision-taking from collective democratic bodies to individuals. This “leader principle” increases the risk of inappropriate influence by the media and the Government, reduces transparency and accountability and excludes mot people from participating by taking by favouring candidates with a high national profile, rather than experience of local service.
The Party proposes to:
- replace two tier local councils with unitary local authorities based on existing county councils or by amalgamating two or more district councils;
- explore how to broaden engagement within local authorities to enable all elected members to have a significant role in decision taking;
- reform the electoral system at the local level so that the make-up of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast;
- raise the status of elected local representatives and honour those who, irrespective of political persuasion, give their time to serve society;
- wherever compatible with efficiency and value for money, devolve powers from central government and quangos, to expand opportunities for ordinary members of the public to take decisions on behalf of their communities and play a direct part in the management of local facilities such as parks, libraries and leisure centres.
The transfer of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont has helped to redress the balance in these nations, but England remains unique among large democratic countries in not having a locally accountable regional tier of government. This lack of a powerful focus has left the Engish regions without a political leadership capable of launching campaigns, mobilising resources and lobbying in Westminster.
In the past, elected councillors in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester transformed their communities through far-sighted infrastructure developments and by providing services in areas such as health, welfare and education, which had a huge impact on the lives of their citizens. But since 1979, increasing central control over local authority spending, privatisation and the transfer of the running of large parts of the education and health systems to businesses and non-elected bodies has led to 91% of public spending in England now being in the hands of central government. This process has contributed to increasing regional inequality, with the result that the discrepancy in wealth between the metropolitan area and the rest of the country is greater in Britain than in any other major country in Europe.
Excessive centralisation also leads to a decline in local leadership and to public alienation from the democratic process, encouraging the simplistic, inward-looking populism articulated by UKIP. It can also cause inflexible decision taking, waste and delays such as those which have plagued attempts to restructure the management of the NHS in England, which the King’s Fund described as: “top-down reorganisation which has been damaging and distracting”.
The Party, therefore, proposes that a regional tier of government be established with powers similar to the Welsh Assembly covering areas such as the NHS, economic development, and strategic oversight of the publicly funded schools system. Regional government should be introduced step by step, first by transferring appropriate responsiblities to regional bodies controlled by elected representatives from local authorities. As a second stage, regional assemblies should be established, starting with areas with strong local identity sentiment is strongest, such as the North-West and the South-West. The creation of such regional assemblies should be authorised by Parliament to avoid the situation which arose in 2004, when the public in the North-East voted against the creation of a regional tier of government as a result of opposition from vested interests in the existing local government structures, scare-mongering by conservative politicians and newspaper owners and half-hearted support from the then Labour Prime Minister.
The discredited system of Police Commissioners was introduced from the United States to pad out an empty Conservative Manifesto before the 2010 general election and has failed to win public support, with levels of participation in ballots as low as 12%. In addition, people with close links to the police force account for an uncomfortably high proportion of successful candidates. No good reason was ever put forward for handing these powers to a single individual and local control of the police should be handed back to committees of local authority elected representatives which, under the Radical Party’s proposal for fair voting reform, would normally function on a multi-party basis.
The Party proposes that:
- a democratic regional tier of government, to be elected through an every vote counts electoral system, be established in England with responsiblity for primary and secondary education, the NHS, the police and economic development.
Information and the media
Meaningful democracy requires diversity of information and debate, but the overwhelming majority of newspapers sold in Britain reflect the views of one party. Five or six billionaires with similar conservative views, most of whom are not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, control over 80% of the national press and in the politically crucial middle market, readers have no real choice in terms of the political orientation of the papers they read.
There is nothing inevitable in this pattern of control of the press. In Germany, most newspapers are controlled by trusts, as the Guardian and the Observer are in the UK, while in the US, the law imposes restrictions on the ownership of newspapers by people who are not US citizens.
Market forces play little part in determining the opinions expressed in headlines and editorials as most national papers are subsidised by their owners, making it impossible for competitors to emerge. A related problem is that, with the Mirror costing 70p, the Guardian £2-00, the Financial Times £2-70, and the Observer £3-00, compared to 50p for the Sun, 65p for the Mail, 70p for the Express, and £1-30 for the Telegraph most national papers which are critical of Conservative policies are out of reach of people on, or below, average incomes. And politically motivated press magnates are not the only obstacle to informed debate. A growing threat also comes from the takeover of local newspapers and broadcasters by large profit-seeking media companies, which see quality news and analysis as a cost to be pared back as far as possible.
Those who defend the status quo claim that the opinions expressed in newspapers have little influence on how people vote, but if billboards and headlines had no influence, it is hard to see why the parties would spend fortunes on posters, and court newspaper owners and editors as they do. The issue is not just a matter of how papers influence voters. As, or more, important is how they influence politicians, with, for example, successive Governments responding to media demands for ever more punitive responses to a range of social problems, without real evidence that such responses are even effective.
But what can be done to promote a broader spread of views in the media? The Public Interest Test in the Enterprise Act of 2002 and the Communications Act of 2003, only apply in the case of mergers and are clearly failing to provide effective protection for plurality. The law needs to be strengthened to actively promote greater plurality both in ownership and in opinions. The Party is strongly opposed to cuts being imposed on the BBC, which threaten to undermine quality and viewer and listener choice, while further eroding diversity. The BBC exists to provide news, debate, information and entertainment and not to act as a social welfare agency. The Party calls for:
- the powers of the Office of Communications to be strengthened to ensure genuine diversity through periodic plurality reviews, backed up by effective remedies;
- a ban on individuals and corporations domiciled for tax purposes outside the European Union controlling the editorial policy of major media outlets;
- regulations to ensure that contacts between newspaper proprietors and politicians are conducted in a transparent way to prevent diversity being traded away in exchange for electoral support;
- the cost of providing free television licenses for anyone over the age of 75 to be funded out of general taxation and not treated as a cost to the BBC.
Evidence based policy making
Recent Governments have had a deplorable record of making policy in response to emotional media campaigns rather than on the basis of objective research. This has come to a head in the campaigns for the 2016 referendum and the 2017 General Election, with senior Conservatives openly deriding expert opinion in favour of anecdotes and assertions by sympathetic editors. This abandonment of evidence in favour of populist prejudices has led to legislation which is sub-optimal and counter-productive. The Party proposes that:
- the Government should formally adopt a commitment to evidence-based policy making, with the aim of ensuring that all proposals for legislation are based on sound, independent research and evidence;
- impact assessment studies should be carried out and made available to the public on all new legislation;
- such research should be made a statutory requirement and should be carried out by reputable independent research organisations overseen by a strengthened UK Statistical Authority with a role similar to those of the Office of Budget Responsibility and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The Government should thus be required to publish an independent review of the case for and against proposed legislation, together with an appraisal of the supporting evidence (including evidence from other countries).
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