The UK is Not a Real Democracy: Let’s Make it One – Liberal Article
We are often told that the UK is one of the oldest and strongest continual democracies in the World. This isn’t a complete lie. After all, British democracy has withstood depressions, overcome the authoritarian ideologies of Fascism and Communism, and survived through two World Wars. Even now, it currently boasts one of the highest rankings on The Economist’s Democracy Index with a strong 8.52 – a Full Democracy.
For many, Britain is seen as a real democracy. In many ways, this makes sense. We get to vote, to petition, and to express ourselves exactly how we want, right? It seems the governance of Britain is down to us, the people!
But is it really?
British democracy is, in reality, very flawed. I would even say it’s a fraud. Our electoral system is unrepresentative. Our direct voice is rarely heard in decision-making. And who on the ground was ever consulted about the second round of a despised tier system?
Britain’s democracy is broken. What is the solution? Complete and thorough systematic change.
Our ‘Democracy’ in Practice
Let’s pause for a moment though and return to the Democracy Index. The Index is split into five categories: Electoral Process + Pluralism; Political Participation; Civil Liberties; Functioning of Government; and Political Culture. As a nation, we score very well for the first three. For the other two though, we have some of the worst results in Western Europe. Clearly, British democracy is not thriving.
Things are even worse on the ground. Our pro-democracy political culture is in danger.
A BBC poll showed that a jaw-dropping 61% of Britons in the run-up to the 2019 General Election were dissatisfied with our democracy. This did not get better with Boris’ win. In January 2020, an even more extensive ETB poll showed that three in five people had lost faith in Democracy. We know the situation is dire when the only European country polled as having less faith in their democracy is Russia.
This attitude has not disappeared. True, there was an unexpected surge in support for democracy in an LSE poll done in April 2020. Yet this poll, conducted during our hopeful first lockdown, is not as reliable as it looks. With a survey size 16x smaller than the ETB poll, the LSE poll was taken during a time of both immense confusion and uncertainty for British people. In fact, popular democracy took a turn for the worst a few months on.
Let’s look at one last source: the Reuters poll. It shows that by June 2020, trust in government had significantly declined from April (from 67% to 48%). People also trusted their news significantly less (57% to 46%). Politicians, in general, were distrusted by 40% of people. And this was in June! Since then, Government disapproval has shot up once again. Distrust rules the day. Democracy hangs on a tether once again.
Truth is, if the system is flawed, you cannot placate its participants for long.
Look at the heart of our government: the House of Commons. Half the nation does not believe they are fairly represented in Parliament. I can see why. Our exclusive reliance on a ‘first-past-the-post’ system is fundamentally flawed.
The 2015 election is a perfect example of how unrepresentative this system really is. The Greens gained 1,157,600 votes. How many seats did this yield? Just one. Then let’s take UKIP, with 3,881,099 votes. Their seat count? One again. To reiterate, that’s one constituency for 1.5 and 3.8 million votes respectively! The winning Conservative Party, by contrast, only had to win 34,000 votes for one seat! No wonder why people still feel unrepresented! So much for political plurality!
Hope is not lost though. We have a chance to save our democracy. We can do this in two ways: by reforming our governance, and our representation.
Improving Our Governance
The 2015 election highlights how badly we need to change our voting system and parliament. If we can elect politicians who actually represent us, I guarantee we’ll elect politicians – and a democracy – we can trust.
We desperately need electoral reform. We need to introduce a new voting style that really hears our voice. Our safest bet is Mixed Member Proportional Representation. With MMPR, we keep our ‘first-past-the-post’ system, but include the popular vote as well.
For example, look at New Zealand. They have a 120 seat parliament: 71 seats are decided by constituency (like ours), but 49 ‘List’ seats are decided by the popular vote (unlike ours). Germany has a similar system, and so do the Scottish, Wales, and London Assemblies. Why not our national Parliament as well?
We also need a heartfelt political movement – or even a party – that wants to carry out this reform. Politics has become a game of defending the party, not the people. Labour and Conservatives would lose seats from political reform, but they need to put their electorate first. A new, pure democratic movement would steer them in the right direction. The work of the ‘Electoral Reform Society’ and the trans-national ‘All Hands on’ documentary are good places to start.
We should not fight for party elites. Our citizens deserve a movement that will defend the rights to free and fair elections. We need a movement that will renew our faith in democracy again.
Improving Our Representation
Giving people a voice is only half the process though. We need to show that we also trust them with that voice! This is what separates a ‘democracy’ from a real democracy. This is where representation comes in.
Patrick Chalmers, writing for The Correspondent, has proposed many ideas to help us build a real democracy. A few of his points deserve a special mention. They are solutions that I firmly believe could work in Britain:
- Participatory Budgets: Simply put, we the people would get to decide how our local budgets are spent. In most cases, an assembly of citizens works with forums and local authorities to create a plan for annual spending. PBs allow all of our needs to be the priority, but especially the needs of the downtrodden. With prior successes in South America, the Marsabit County in Kenya is now implementing PBs with remarkable success.
- Citizens Panels: This is political debate at its finest, with far-reaching consequences! These panels are formed of random members of the public, sitting as a ‘jury’ to discuss complex national issues alongside their own needs. Aided by mediators, they give citizens proper time and information to express their views and reach a stable compromise. These solutions then reach government, such as in Ireland, which used Citizens Panels to overturn their archaic Abortion laws.
- Crowdsourced Democracy: Let’s not leave the collective knowledge of 68 million people in the hands of 21 incompetent cabinet ministers! Our experiences deserve to be shared and heard! An example is Taiwan’s government, which pools together their nation’s knowledge through the vTaiwan app to inform their policies. The results so far? A swift response against Covid-19 and a successful attack on corporate. Britain should try this instead of a faulty ‘Track-and-Trace’ app.
These solutions give us the chance to live in a dynamic, real democracy. In a democracy we can trust. And in a democracy that trusts us.
A month before the US election, Rob Wijnberg wrote a penetrating article on the gaps in America’s democracy. However, Wijnberg’s analysis showed me that we in Britain aren’t that far removed. We need to recognise the flaws in our system. We need to fix our government and improve our representation before it is too late. Most importantly, we need to trust the people to build back democracy. Once we do this, we can say that we live in a real democracy.
Written by Chief Liberal Writer, Frank Allen
Point of Information
Real democracy is ‘people power’ – A Labour Response
This article was a really interesting read. Frank does a great job at highlighting a topic that I had never really considered before. Why? The UK is almost always portrayed positively as one of the world’s first and best democracies.
I would firstly like to say that I don’t necessarily agree with Frank’s title here; I think the UK is a real democracy and I wouldn’t agree that it is failing to the extent that Frank insinuates. However, I take the overarching sentiment here to be that the UK isn’t reaching its full capacity democratically and that there are many possible improvements that could help reach this stage. This is something I can get behind.
One area, arguably the worst, that definitely isn’t as good as its potential is representation. Frank lists many reasons why the FPTP electoral system fails to meet the mark when it comes to representation and it is hard to argue against this. But, for now, at least, I struggle to see a better option.
However, this is not to say that representation cannot be improved by other means. Citizen assemblies for example are an ideal way to mobilise the populous, involving ordinary people in discussions on real-time issues. They also provide a greater opportunity for our representatives to do their jobs better – if they know exactly what the people want, they should arguably find it easier to do good by their constituents.
This would ideally lead to a decline in political apathy in the UK. Again, Frank uses some convincing statistics to suggest that the UK populous is becoming more and more dissatisfied with democracy and the government. This largely comes down to trust because we have no choice but to trust the government to make major decisions for us, so when these decisions don’t represent the people it is very hard not to feel a certain level of discontent. This is certainly something we have seen a lot over the course of the coronavirus pandemic; who actually trusts BoJo after his consistent lack of clarity and mistake-driven leadership over the past few months?
So while I wouldn’t say that UK democracy is a complete failure, it could do with refurbishing. Building on increasing sound representation and working towards mobilising the populous would help us see a move towards a more ‘real democracy’. The government needs to cooperate, but this does need to come largely from the people – democracy is ‘people power’ after all.
Written by Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
British Democracy, flawed, but not fraud – A Conservative Response
To say British democracy is perfect would be wrong. There are flaws in our system. First Past the Post (FPTP), for example, does have a few problems. One of which is that it creates a strong two-party system, in our case Conservative and Labour. It also means that the government often wins with less than 50% of the national vote. A government winning with this high a vote share hasn’t happened for quite a while.
One big advantages of FPTP however is that it often creates strong governments, which means there is action take on issues. If you look at the 2019 election under a proportional system, no party would have been able to form a majority unless there were multiple agreements, as the Lib Dems would have refused a coalition with the Conservatives. This no doubt in times of crisis would have resulted in long decision making and lives lost. Under FPTP there is a strong government to take action.
Whilst improving our representation we would make our government more unstable, unable to take action. This would not improve trust in politics, as the trouble between 2017 and 2019 showed. This trade-off is hard to justify if you want the government to do its job, and not be endlessly bogged down trying to get the votes needed.
While my colleague tries to highlight the fact that FPTP is biased towards the Conservatives, the evidence shows Labour benefit. 43.6% of people voted for Boris Johnson, which is more than Tony Blair’s 1997 result of 43.2, yet Blair had over 40 more seats. Theresa May (2017) received 42.7% of the vote, which is more than Blair’s 2001 vote share of 40.7%, yet Blair retained his crushing majority and May lost hers. In terms of losses, Michael Foot polled worse than John Major (1997), with 27.6% of the vote compared to 30.7%, yet Major ended up with 165 seats compared to Foot’s 209.
Looking at some of the other suggestions, crowdsourced democracy is a good idea. This gives ministers a clear idea of what people would like in a quick and meaningful way, whilst not have binding realities on decision making. It would mean MPs and civil servants would be able to then look into that idea and come up with a reasoned compromise.
The other two have the problems of including uninformed voters in the process and giving them power. MPs are more informed and are there to represent us, that is their job. There are ways we can get in touch with them. This would lead to decisions being taken that are objectively bad. And while evidence is out there, people routinely ignore it, look at conspiracy theories. Education at the school level on politics must be improved, however even that would have limited effect.
One aspect of UK democracy this article doesn’t touch on but does need further reform is the House of Lords. Their power is strong for a completely unelected body.
While Churchill did not say “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”, sometimes it is possible to say that holding weight. Britain’s democracy is flawed in some areas, though however it is not struggling as much as this article makes out.
Written By Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt