Willie Sullivan, Jess Garland and Michela Palese on how to fix our broken political system
Most commentators seem to buy in to the idea that we are largely governed by consent in Britain. Up until now, it has seemed to matter only a little that this consent is positively granted through the clumsy and cumbersome method of winner takes all elections held around every five years. This is probably because we trusted our institutions, the rule of law, the operation of parliament, the freedom of the press, the impartiality of public service broadcasting and the idea that those that who governed us shared or represented our interests.
The neo-liberal project both captured and then degraded democratic cultures. In the whirl of late twentieth century capitalism, it was hard to find our bearings – even when we saw undemocratic interests begin to infiltrate and manipulate our institutions such as the finance sector and property development lobbies. We let it go as we seemed to share their interests: banks got richer, we all get richer; houses prices keep going up, lots of us felt more secure. This, of course, was partly true but mostly an illusion. The crash of 2008 and a social revolution driven by technology have created a paradigm shift that means that story of a shared stake in economic growth has been exposed as a historical Ponzi scheme. It’s sad to say that we have, inadvertently, conspired in a massive fraud against our own children. The more recent Brexit paralysis in parliament is a symptom, not a cause, of our political crisis. It can be argued that the call for Scottish independence is an older symptom of the same problem.
The economics of these issues can be discussed elsewhere. We are interested here in unpacking and understanding the growing failure of our democracy to represent our interests and particularly the interests of future generations. And, if it has failed to do this most fundamental of tasks, then what must we do to make sure that we find new systems and institutions that can do the job better? We can look back and say the British state and structures of class hierarchy and patriarchy have always been about privilege and oppressed people here and overseas. This is true, but the big difference now is that many more people can see it and care about it, whether through a sense of injustice or because they feel humiliated and angry as they look in the mirror and see their own alienation reflected back.
This raises the question of legitimacy, which is the key to being governed by consent. We have to believe and to trust that the state is largely operating in our interests by whatever mechanism. Otherwise, put crudely, we will need to un-elect some of its heads if it doesn’t. Elections alone are a clunky manner in which to transfer power from the people to our governors and while deeply insufficient they are also the essential base on which everything else rests. They are not only the trapdoor on which any would be leaders stand; they are the banner behind which we march in our history and shared story of democracy. The fight for the franchise was so important that it needs to hold that place. Let’s hope that in the future that, as participative and deliberative methods become embedded in the way we run ourselves, people will have many more and much richer experiences of democratic actions. Even with those methods in place, however, the act of voting will remain the point at which people feel they are flexing the larger muscles of democratic power. This means that the ballot box needs to be reclaimed.
Our society stood at a fork in the road in the 1980s and 1990s and rushed towards the banks, competition and conspicuous consumption, conspiring in the defeat of the National Union of Miners, the wider movement and the repurposing of the Labour Party. The road splits again now and it splits around the dual meaning of representation. Do we need advocates, educated in particular ways and, at the extreme, bred to rule? Or do we want people ‘like us’, the many different ‘us’ that there are? In looking at the rise of populism, it might be important to understand the need some people have for ‘false fathers’ in a scary world were the ‘hard men’ are affirming their power by frightening us. Just as it is also important to understand what is the counter to that – a politics of transformation, where collectively we need to grow up, to look after ourselves and each other, to see that the only real threat are the ‘hard men’ and what they do to our capacity to care well for each and for the very place we exist.
Democracy in most people minds begins with elections but elections are meaningless without other legitimate institutions. The only states in the world that don’t claim to be democratic are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican and their rulers claim their legitimacy directly from god. Interestingly, North Korea holds regular elections, showing it is easier to hold down a population when there is even a sliver of legitimacy.
Our problem here is that not enough people now believe in the legitimacy of the British state. If our objective was to restore an autocratic monarchy, then our task would be to revive belief in the divine rights of kings (and maybe queens). As our aim is to restore and remake democracy fit for the twenty first century, our task is to revive a belief not only in voting but in the idea that government of the people, by the people, for the people, is really possible.
Britain’s broken Westminster system, so easily co-opted to the interests of the few, lies at the root of many of the problems highlighted above. The Brexit vote could be Britain’s long-awaited constitutional moment, serving as the impetus for thorough review and reform of our constitutional structures. It may well be far too late to save the Union, but who would want to save it in this current form anyway? If anything credible is to be offered to people in Scotland and to all the peoples of Britain, it can be nothing less than a complete transformation. To dictate what might be at the end of such a journey would be anti-democratic, but the Electoral Reform Society has been thinking about what the first few miles of this journey might look like. Political reform will require a top down and a bottom up approach where we i) need to see leadership from the top acting to break the dysfunctional, executive-dominated Westminster model, which has remained unreformed for so long; but we also need to ii) bring politics closer to people, to engage and to give meaning to political participation.
Constitutional reform has occurred outside Westminster, but the centre remains largely unchanged from its original model. This has led to:
• Executive dominance: the system underpinning our politics hands almost unrestrained power to the leader of the government, however few citizens voted for it. When it comes to the distribution of power in the Westminster system, the possibility of ‘elected dictatorship’ is not far away. The Brexit process has so far been, for the most part, an exercise in executive power and constitutional flexibility. It has already exposed the British state’s hyper-centralising and power-hoarding tendencies.
• An unrepresentative and weak second chamber: the House of Lords starts from a place of maintaining class-based hierarchy rather than enfranchisement. No amount of tweaking its size can cover for the fact that it fails on almost all democratic principles. Its reform has been on the political agenda for over 100 years and engagement with this issue has been long-standing and cross-partisan. Twenty years on from the House of Lords Act 1999, reforming the House of Lords remains firmly unfinished business. In the past 20 years, there have been around nine attempts at reforming the House of Lords, if we only consider white papers, commissions, Bills and Acts. Since the most recent attempt at large-scale reform, the House of Lords Reform Bill, was withdrawn in 2012, Britain has been through unprecedented constitutional change making reform even more pressing.
• Lack of voice for Britain’s nations and localities: the current mechanisms for cross-border working in Britain do not appear to be working as well as they could. While there have been more formal and regular meetings of ministers from Britain’s constituent parts since the EU referendum, the devolved governments have had little influence in shaping the British government’s Brexit position and have been effectively excluded from EU negotiations. England lacks any distinct representation in these cross-border forums, with Westminster government, parliament and ministers expected to take on a ‘dual hat’ role, representing both Britain as a whole and England.
Reforming our second chamber can improve the health of our democracy by allowing for the fair and equal representation of Britain’s nations and localities, particularly in this post-Brexit era. A second chamber elected on a territorial basis could serve as a forum in which the four nations (including English localities, depending on how they choose to be represented at the national level) can work together in the twenty first century.
An elected second chamber could be the place where Britain-wide, sub-national, and cross-border issues are discussed, where sub-national interests and concerns can be raised and given a fair hearing away from the more politicised and short-term ethos of the House of Commons. Key considerations for reforming the second chamber are: i) composition of the chamber; ii) election of members; iii) specific powers over territorial issues; iv) relationship with the House of Commons; and v) further devolution to the nations and localities of the UK – including to and within England
Politics has become increasingly distant – institutions do not reflect identities and political choices and the majority of Britain has not had a say in its constitutional future. This has led to:
• Disengagement: our research shows that almost half (47%) of people do not feel at all or very represented by parties at Westminster and that two-thirds (67%) feel like they have no or very few opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by their elected representatives. Recent polls also show a historically low combined vote share – around 50% or less – for the Conservatives and Labour, which indicates that voters are not only less closely aligned with the two ‘main’ parties, but also wish to support a wider range of parties. This year’s Audit of Political Engagement found 47% of people feel they have no influence at all over national decision-making – a high for the Audit series.
• Political polarisation and geographical inequality: the dominance of two-party politics has excluded a range of voices from political discussion, pushing locality-specific concerns to the margins as parties chase their national median voter. England in particular remains highly centralised and is still primarily ruled through Britain-wide institutions – it is the ‘gaping hole in the devolution settlement’. So far, devolution within England has been a top-down project. Within England, citizens have not had a chance to discuss their constitutional future or to consider whether an institutional change might be desirable.
Fundamental constitutional change and a recalibration of how we practise our democracy cannot be imposed from Westminster. Bottom-up citizen involvement is necessary to ensure the legitimacy of, and trust in, our institutional set-up, new governing arrangements, and democracy more broadly. This will require a shift in culture which views citizens and local government and councillors as co-creators of policy and collaborators in shaping the future of the country. Thus, people can and should be given the power to shape the future of politics in a more active and consistent way. This would take two primary forms:
• People should be involved in shaping the big constitutional questions of our time, supplementing the piecemeal and incremental work that has so far been undertaken, primarily – if not solely – by politicians. An English constitutional convention should be established to address devolution to and within England. A Britain-wide constitutional convention should also be set up to consider the democratic future of the union in a holistic manner. The work of the other sub-national conventions and assemblies could feed into the Britain-wide convention, which would then focus on the broader constitutional questions such as the relationship between the constituent parts of Britain.
• People should be involved in politics throughout the decision-making process, not just at election time. Multiple entry points for democratic participation should be created at different levels to address local policy issues.
To save our democracy, we need to reform it. We need to give our second chamber legitimacy to do its job, we need to create a political culture that contains the full range of political tools – including those of negotiation and compromise – and we need to find a space to bring together our nations in their shared interests, rather than allow the centre to dominate and override.
We must deal with the toxic polarisation of our politics by building mechanisms to bring people together to hear each other’s views as well as expressing their own and we have to create opportunities for citizens to influence politics, both at the national level and closer to home, giving people a voice in shaping the future of their communities.
Reform needs to be both top-down and bottom-up. It is essential that citizens are brought into the debate about their constitutional future, but this will only have meaning if there is a commitment at the top to change – a bold vision of a new democracy which breaks with the past power-hoarding of the centre and paves the way for a fresh new way of doing politics that Britain can be proud of. Our five key recommendations are:
1. Britain should shift away from the centralised ‘Westminster model’ of governance, towards a consensus model. People can and should be given the power to shape the future of politics in a more active and consistent way so the public should be involved in shaping the big constitutional questions of our time and the public should be involved in politics throughout the decision-making process, not just at election time
2. The next government must reform the House of Lords as a priority. No more reviews: it is time for manifest action.
3. An elected second chamber must serve as the forum in which the four nations – and England’s localities – can work together. This reformed chamber would be where Britain-wide, sub-national, and cross-border issues are discussed
4. An English Constitutional Convention – led by citizens – should consider devolution within England, building upon the work of local citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative democratic processes to give people a say on how they are represented
5. Citizens’ assemblies should be used at the local level in a systematic and embedded manner to deal with complex and contested issues.
Willie Sullivan is a Senior Director at the Electoral Reform Society, Dr Jess Garland is its Research Director and Michela Palese is its Research and Policy Officer. For more, see their ‘Beyond Brexit’ report https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Westminster-beyond-Brexit-Ending-the-politics-of-Division.pdf