Britain’s claim to be a functioning democracy has become threadbare as a result of failure to modernise our discredited electoral system. First past the post voting with a plurality of parties means that most UK governments are elected against the wishes of a large majority of those entitled to vote, as the present system makes it possible to control the House of Commons with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. As a result, the two main parties have no real need to reach beyond core supporters and floating voters in marginal constituencies.
This encourages polarised positions designed to enthuse party conferences and donors and a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats, effectively disenfranchising the great majority of the electorate.
A fossilised system
The fossilization 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 with less than 37% of the votes cast and in June 2017 it won 49% of the seats with 42% of the vote, while in Scotland in 2015, the 50% of the electorate who voted SNP elected 95% of the MPs.
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 their activists and donors demand would not be possible with a fair electoral system. And party managers and MPs elected from our latter-day rotten boroughs (with as few as 24% of the votes cast), have good reason to avoid 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, in the end 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 as far as possible reflect the number of votes cast for the party concerned: every vote should count;
- the system should enable electors to vote for the party they want to win without being obliged to choose between vote tactically or wasting their votes;
- it 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 the following system. Any candidate receiving more than 50% of the votes in a constituency should be elected to represent that constituency. The number of MPs for each party should be determined on the basis of their party’s share of the votes cast, with the candidates with the greatest number of votes being declared elected in order of the number of votes they receive. To bring the number of MPs for each party into line with the total number of votes cast for it, those receiving the highest number of votes for parties which would otherwise be under-represented, but who came second in their own constituencies, would serve in their own constituencies alongside the winning candidates. To prevent a proliferation of small parties, a threshold should be established below which a party would not elect any MPs (apart from any who received more than 50% of the votes in their own constituencies). Bye-elections would be on the basis of an eliminating ballot, as the proposed system would not be possible in a single constituency.
This system would require: first, that some constituencies could be represented by two members rather than one; and, second, that the total number of MPs (but not constituencies) might vary somewhat from one Parliament to the next. Neither of these can be considered a serious objection. Multi-member constituencies have a long tradition in Britain: they already exist in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, in Stormont and for the European Parliament and are widespread in local government. 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.
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. Consideration should also be given to how the interests of those aged under 16 could best be reflected in the electoral system, for example by giving parents the right to cast a proxy vote on behalf of under-age children.
The funding and management of elections in the UK is controlled by precise regulations, which monitor different categories of spending based on returns which, in some cases, require agents and candidates to declare expenditure down the 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.
However, a glance at billboards and headlines in the run-up to an election makes clear that these regulations, while essential, are very far from achieving the level playing field which is a prerequisite for genuine democracy. As they stand, the current controls amount to locking the cat flap while the back door stands wide open.
The first issue is that the rules do not effectively prevent wealth from being used to influence the outcome of elections. While imposing tight limits on promoting individual candidates, the rules also allow up to £19.5 million (if a party were to contest all 650 constituencies) on promoting party programmes nationally. 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. The second issue is that most national papers in Britain (unlike, for example, in Germany where most newspapers are owned by trusts) are controlled by very wealthy individuals who can largely control what information and opinions are seen by the majority of electors – a problem which goes well beyond the remit of electoral law.
- the ceiling on the amount that parties can spend on national campaigning should be reduced from its present level of £30,000 to £10,000 per constituency contested;
- pending the implementation of every vote counts electoral reform, the practice of concentrating “national” spending on key marginals should be ended by requiring propaganda which promotes a party or a programme to be distributed between all seats contested;
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 and allegations of falsified expenses and tax fiddles. A few of those concerned were sanctioned 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 and 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 inside 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 system of regulation. 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 the 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 that is 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, or to have second jobs. To increase accountability and the status of MPs, ensure that people from all walks of life can stand for Parliament, and to ensure that being an MP becomes a full time job. The Radical Party, proposes that:
- it be made a criminal offence for MPs to accept payment to represent outside interests;
- MPs be required to pay any outside earnings, from sources such as journalism, which are relevant to parliamentary duties 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. The regulation requiring gifts worth over £300 to be declared should be replaced by a straight forward prohibition on any treating or gifts;
- enforceable rules 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;
- the number of constituencies, and hence of MPs, should be reduced from the current 650 to 500 or below, in line with the number of lower chamber deputies in comparable democracies;
- MPs’ salary 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 has reached a critical point, 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 1,200 or more 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 more democratic upper chamber, 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 Lords 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
To create a modern and more democratic Upper Chamber, a new system of choosing members should be phased in, such that the reformed chamber is eventually made up of equal numbers of members chosen by two separate and complementary methods. The Party proposes that:
- 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;
- a freeze should be introduced on new appointments and measures adopted to encourage less active peers to retire, with a view to reducing their number progressively from the present figure of around 800 to an eventual target of 400;
- each year, names should be drawn at random from among those who had voted in the previous general election and the first 20 would serve for a fixed term of ten years. Individuals who declined to serve would be replaced by the next in turn from among the names drawn in such a way as to ensure that a fair balance was maintained in terms of gender and ethnicity;
- the other half of the upper chamber should be made up of people with a high level of experience and expertise in areas relevant to the chamber’s functions in the law-making process. The role of the Prime Minister and the party leaders in putting forward nominations to the upper chamber should be ended;
- appointees should be selected by an independent commission with a mandate to ensure that appointments reflect the gender and ethnic characteristics of the population at large.
This system would produce an upper chamber with a strong democratic component, with an equal number of men and women members, which accurately 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.
Local and regional democracy
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 transfer of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont has helped to redress the balance, but England remains almost unique among large democratic countries in not having an elected regional tier of government. The Radical Party believes that local democracy should be modernised and rebuilt by:
- reforming the electoral system at the local level so that the make-up of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast;
- raising the status of elected local representatives and honouring those who, irrespective of political persuasion, give their time to serve society;
- wherever compatible with efficiency and value for money, devolving powers from central government and quangos, to expand opportunities for ordinary members of the public to take decisions on behalf of their communities;
- as a step towards the creation of a comprehensive tier of regional government, transferring strategic responsibility for the primary and secondary education system, for the NHS in England, and for the police to elected regional education, health and police authorities with powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
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 has been 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 favours candidates with a high national profile, rather than experience of local service. 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. The Radical 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;
- transfer responsibility for policing from Police Commissioners to elected regional police authorities.
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 new and growing threat 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 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 – as is shown by the way that successive Governments have responded to media demands for ever more punitive responses to a range of social problems, without real evidence that such responses are more effective than more humane alternatives.
But what can be done to promote a wide 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 be 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 and objective evidence in favour of anecdotes and assertions put 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, and are subject to independent evaluation;
- 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 of Clinical Excellence. The Government would thus be required to publish an independent review of the case for, and against, proposed legislation, together with an appraisal of the supporting evidence;
- efforts should be made to draw on a broader range of international experience to balance the one-sided emphasis on neo-conservative transatlantic models, apparent under all recent governments.
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