Poverty and gross inequality are not a result of the laws of economics but of political failure. To claim that Britain performs worse than other Western European countries because of a tax and spending system that favours the better off is to put the cart before the horse. Simply expanding welfare is not a sustainable strategy. A more fundamental approach is needed, based on a recognition that failure to modernise our political system has handed power to those who benefit from policies that lead to high levels of inequality.
A Silent Coup
Until the 1980s, Britain was one of the most egalitarian of the industrialised nations, with a welfare state that enjoyed the support of the public and both of the major political parties. But the deep split in the Labour Party between social democrats and Marxists opened the way for a silent coup d’etat by admirers of trans-Atlantic capitalism, who captured first the Conservative Party and then “New Labour” with a vision of progress focused on privatisation and the transfer of decision-taking formerly dispersed through society in local authorities, the NHS and schools into the hands of private profit seekers and managers, who ultimately answer to the state.
The agenda of successive rounds of cuts in public services, which build on this neo-conservative vision, was never espoused by the public and was only possible because of the fossilisation of our electoral system. First-past-the-post voting with a plurality of parties means that almost all UK governments are elected without the support of a majority of the voters. Indeed this, with low turnout in elections, makes it possible for one party to control Parliament with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. As a result, the two main parties, obstinately resist meaningful reform and concentrate on enthusing party conferences, donors and a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats, effectively ignoring the rest of the electorate.
The growing divorce between the political establishment and the public at large reflects, and is reinforced by, the long-term decline in the number of party members, which dropped by 66% between 1980 and 2009. This made Westminster parties even more dependent on donations from wealthy organisations and individuals, which grew from £44 million before the 2005 election to £100 million in 2017. The development of pervasive and often non-transparent and unaccountable social media channels has opened up new sources of information for ordinary electors but has also vastly increased the opportunities for well-funded lobbyists to manipulate the political process.
The fossilisation of our electoral system has impeded modernisation and reform and the more perverse the results of the system, the greater the vested interest MPs have in resisting change. Turnout in elections has declined sharply over the past half-century and, after the US, the United Kingdom now has the lowest level 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 countries with first-past-the-post voting, 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 voters 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 and Labour Parties between them polled 85% of the votes but won 97% of the seats, with the Conservative Party winning 49% of the seats with 42% of the vote.
Every Vote Counts Elections
A fresh mobilisation is needed in British politics to break the logjam and restore power to the electorate but electoral reform has been pushed off the political agenda. The first reasons for this is that the public rejected a system of proportional voting in a referendum in May 2011. However, this was not on the principle of fair voting, but simply offered the Alternative Vote (AV); a complicated system which was the outcome of horse-trading between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party managers.
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 under the existing system.
But the principal reason why reform is not on the agenda is that the main parties have a vested interest in blocking reform. Party leaders know that implementing the polarised policies activists and donors demand would not be possible with a fair electoral system. And MPs elected with as few as 24% of the votes cast in 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 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. For all of the radical reforms which laid the foundations for our modern democracy were fiercely opposed by the political establishment. Citizen power may work slowly, but with determination in a society governed by law, a velvet revolution can become irresistible.
Six Principles for Fair Voting
The Radical Party’s proposals for reform are based on six principles. First, 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. Second, the system must permit electors to vote for the party they want to win without wasting their votes being obliged to vote tactically. Third, no candidate should be deemed to be elected until he or she has received the support of 50% of the votes cast. Fourth, the system should allow popular independents and representatives of action groups with strong local support to be elected. Fifth, 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. And, sixth, it should prevent extreme fragmentation, which could give tiny parties with wealthy backers disproportionate influence.
Respecting these principles, the Party proposes that:
- any candidate receiving over 50% of the votes in a constituency be elected forthwith to represent that constituency;
- in all other constituencies, a run-off ballot be held between the candidates who came first and second to determine who is elected;
- the number of MPs representing parties which would otherwise be under-represented on the basis of the constituencies won in the first and second ballots, be topped up to achieve proportional representation on the basis of the distribution of votes cast in the first ballot
- the top-up places be filled by the candidates of under-represented parties receiving the highest number of votes in their constituencies in the first ballot: they would then serve as MPs alongside the winning candidate in their own constituencies
- to prevent a proliferation of small parties, a threshold be established below which a party would not elect any MPs (apart from any candidates 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 be determined by a runoff ballot, as in a general election.
This system would require the total number of MPs (but not constituencies) to vary somewhat from one Parliament to the next. 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. In the same way, two round ballots already exist for elections for the London mayor and in other mayoral elections.
With one MP for every 96,000 residents, compared with 154,000 in Australia, 188,000 in France, 129,000 in Germany, 227,000 in Japan and 722,000 in the United States, the UK has one of the highest number of MPs in relation to its population of any major democracy. Besides wasting resources, this contributes to the low estime in which the House of Commons is now 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 now underway with a brief to reduce the number to 600, which if enacted, would still leave the UK substantially over-represented. To strengthen and raise the prestige of Parliament, the Party proposes that the total number of constituencies be reduced through future Boundary Commission reviews to 500 (which under the Party’s fair voting proposal would lead to a somewhat higher total number MPs).
The current differences between constituencies in terms of the number of electors makes a nonsense of one person one vote, with the largest, the Isle of Wight, having 110,697 in 2017, while the smallest, Na h-Eieanan, had just, 21,769. This hotch-potch results from party lobbying and the fact that the Commission is charged with taking geographical and demographic criteria into account as well as population.
These criteria date from a time when barriers such as rivers and mountains were a greater impediment than now and modern transport and communications technologies did not exist. The Party believes that it cannot be acceptable that an elector in one area should have five times as much influence over the makeup of the House of Commons as one from another and considers that the Commission should be charged with an over-riding responsibility to equalise the number of voters in each constituency as far as is practicable.
Stronger Electoral Law
The Party considers that the maximum parliamentary term should be reduced from five to four years to increase accountability to the public and bring the UK into line with comparable democracies. The strongly supports reducing the voting age from 18 to 16, a measure which would enrich democracy and encourage young people to engage with civil society at a formative time of life.
The funding of elections is controlled by regulations which are enforced by the Electoral Commission and the courts. Tight limits apply to money spent on promoting individual candidates, with the ceiling in the region of £15,000 per parliamentary constituency (except for in by-elections when the limit is an astonishing £100,000). The Party proposes that the current limit on spending in support of particular candidates in general elections be retained and extended to cover by-elections.
But a glance at billboards and headlines at election time makes clear that these regulations are far from achieving the level playing field. Indeed, they amount to little more than locking the cat flap while the back door stands open. While imposing tight limits on promoting particular 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 boosts the influence of donors and encourages party managers to find ways to manipulate the system, for example, by shipping teams of workers into marginal constituencies. To tackle this abuse, the Party considers that national spending should be limited to £5,000 per constituency contested.
An Accountable House of Commons
Since 2008, the reputation of the House of Commons has been mired by a succession of scandals involving conflicts of interest, falsified expenses and tax fiddles. A few of those involved have been 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, 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 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.
Members of the public rightly 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 really be working whole-heartedly in the interests of their constituents. The British Government regularly condemns corruption and poor governance in other parts of the World. It should not be too much to expect that it also ensures that its own parliamentarians observe standards at least as high as those expected of 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 this is fixed at a level sufficient to permit candidates without private wealth to be elected without suffering a critical drop in earnings or exposing themselves to the temptation to peddle influence. The Party considers that salaries should be increased from the current level of £74,000 per year to the average earned by GP partners (currently around £100,000 a year). This will ensure that people from all walks of life can stand for Parliament and provide a strong foundation for requiring that MPs treat their employment as a full-time commitment.
The Party proposes that it be made a criminal offence for an MP to accept payment to represent outside interests. MPs should be required to donate any outside earnings from sources relevant to parliamentary business, such as journalism and television appearances, to charity.
The rules covering gifts from interested parties should be revised to meet the standards required of civil servants and employees of ethically run companies, replacing the requirement that gifts worth over £300 must be declared 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. Effective procedures should also be developed to prevent recent ex-MPs from seeking to influence ministers or civil servants on behalf of clients during an appropriate quarantine period.
Reforming the 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 and 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 in favour of meaningful democracy.
Don’t Make Things Worse!
The situation cries out for reform, but what’s to be done? The solution advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats of an elected second chamber 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 an 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 second 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 second 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 second chamber for detailed review.
A Better Way
The solution lies in accepting that, in democratic terms, the UK has always had a single chamber system. It is not unusual in this: in fact, a number of models of democratic best practice, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, perform very well with a single chamber. The answer then to the challenge of how to build on the good features of the current of the Lords without creating a fifth wheel or undermining the Commons is to abandon the objective of turning the Lords into a dilute version of the elected first 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 proportional voting system), but in terms of key social parameters such as gender, ethnic
ity, income and locality.
The Party proposes that the link between honours and membership of the second chamber should be ended, as should the topping up of the body of hereditary peers, and bishops, on death or retirement. Strengthened measures should be adopted to require less active peers to retire to reduce their number according to an agreed timetable from the present figure of around 800 to 400. After a transition period, the voting membership of the second chamber should be made up entirely of people with experience and expertise relevant to the chamber’s functions selected from a pool of nominees by an independent commission with a clear mandate from Parliament to ensu
re that appointments reflect the gender, ethnic, income, geographic and other characteristics of the population at large, with women taking 50% of the seats.
Under the proposed system, any citizen on the electoral register would be eligible to be nominated for possible selection for membership of the second chamber and to nominate, provided that the nomination is seconded by an agreed number of registered electors. Tenure 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 provison that any peers appointed in the last ten years should be entitled to serve for a total of up to ten years). In addition, any individuals who the Prime Minister wished nominate as ministers who were not MPs would serve as members of the second chamber for the duration of their term as ministers.
Those democracies which have second chambers offer a whole menagerie 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 Party considers that the proposed system will produce a second chamber which reflects the makeup of the electorate as a whole, is complementary to, and not in competition with, the Commons, and which draws 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 an elected second house, be effective within the modest parameters of its legitimate role, and be democratic in a way the present House of Lords can never be.
Base Policy on Evidence
Over the years, governments have had a deplorable record of making policy in response to media campaigns rather than objective research. This came to a head in the 2016 referendum and 2017 General Election campaigns, with senior Conservatives openly deriding expert opinion in favour of anecdotes and fake news drawn from the right-wing press. Abandoning evidence and resorting to prejudice has led to legislation which is sub-optimal and counter-productive and, with Brexit, has led the country to the brink of economic disaster. The Party proposes that the Government formally adopts a commitment to evidence-based policy making to ensure that all proposals for legislation are based on sound, independent research and evidence.
Our performance in areas such as as equality, democratic participation, health, education and poverty alleviation should be systematically bench marked against outcomes in comparable advanced democracies using data from authoritative international agencies such as the OECD and the World Health Organisation, supplemented by original research.
Impact assessment studies should be carried out and made available to the public on all new legislation. This should be 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.
Accountable government cannot simply rest on four yearly elections, however fairly they may be organised. Our politics must progress beyond arguments based on “my constituents are telling me” and statistically meaningless reader surveys published in the popular press. The question of what rigorously conducted surveys can and cannot tell us about what the public really think and want; and why should be explored. People such as Tom Harford of the BBC and Professor Spiegelhalter at Cambridge University are doing outstanding work in exposing the misuse of statistical data in public life, but the audience they can reach is inevitably limited.
Building an evidence-based democracy requires more than simply informing civil servants and politicians, it also demands that the public have access to the data, analysis and different points of view they need if they are to take balanced and informed decisions. This should be achieved by enriching what our education system has to offer and devising exciting new printed, broadcast and on-line formats and channels of communication that reach out to people from every kind of background.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
- reform the electoral system so that the number of MPs elected for each party accurately reflects the votes cast, with all candidates receiving more than 50% of the votes in their constituencies being elected forthwith;
- hold a run-off ballot in all other constituencies between the candidates who came first and second to determine who becomes the MP;
- top-up the number of MPs representing parties which would otherwise be under-represented with those receiving the highest number of votes in the first ballot;
- to prevent extreme fragmentation, establish a threshold below which a party would not elect any MPs (apart from any receiving more than 50% of the votes in their own constituencies).
Stronger Electoral Law
- reduce the number of constituencies to 500 and the maximum parliamentary term from five to four years;
- reduce the age at which a person becomes entitled to vote from 18 to 16;
- retain the present tight limit on spending in support of individual candidates;
- reduce the amount of national spending per constituency fought from £30,000 to £5,000 in both general and by-elections;
- charge the Boundaries Commission with equalising the number of electors in each constituency.
An Accountable House of Commons
- make it a criminal offence for MPs to accept payment to represent outside interests;
- require MPs to treat their employment as a full-time job and to donate outside earnings from sources relevant to parliamentary business to charity;
- introduce a prohibition on any treating or gifts;
- subject all lobbying of ministers and senior civil servants to legally enforceable transparency, disclosure and publicly accessible record keeping;
- prevent recent ex-MPs from seeking to influence ministers or civil servants on behalf of clients during an appropriate quarantine period;
- increase MPs’ salaries to the equivalent of the average earned by GP partners (currently around £100,000 a year).
Reforming the Lords
- end the link between the honours system and membership of the upper house and the replacement of hereditary peers and bishops who leave the Lords;
- require less active peers to retire to reduce the number of peers according to an agreed timetable to 400;
- make the membership of the second chamber up entirely of people with experience and expertise selected by an independent commission mandated to ensure that appointments reflect the gender, ethnic, income, and geographic characteristics of the population, with women taking 50% of the seats;
- allow any citizen who is on the electoral register to be nominated for consideration for possible appointment to the second chamber;
- provide for a ten-year term for all new appointments and for existing members a maximum of five years from the introduction of the reform;
- permit the Prime Minister to nominate a limited number of non-MP ministers to serve as members of the second chamber during their terms as ministers.
Base Policy on Evidence
- adopt a commitment to evidence-based policymaking to ensure all proposals for legislation are based on sound, independent research overseen by a strengthened UK Statistical Authority;
- conduct independent impact assessment studies on all new legislation and make them available to the public;
- require the Government to publish an independent review of the case for and against proposed legislation, together with an appraisal of the supporting evidence.
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