I’ve written before about the antiquated and unfair voting system in the UK. But here, I’m going to widen this to look at the democratic system in the UK more broadly. We’ve just been subjected to weeks of rhetoric about the democratic deficit of the EU; it has culminated in what I must say is – in my view – one of the worst decisions the UK electorate has made in decades.
So I want to just flag up a little of what democratic deficit we have here, right on our door step.
First of all, we don’t have a written constitution. That doesn’t mean we don’t have one; it just means that it is not properly codified and thus not all that clear-cut.
How are our laws are made?
Who makes the laws?
Setting aside what happens at EU level for a moment, our laws are made by Parliament (or so everyone says). But who is Parliament? Most of the laws are proposed by the Government (the executive arm of a democracy) which in our case is also part of Parliament (the legislative arm of a democracy). This can muddy the waters.
Secondly, we have a Parliament which consists of two chambers: the House of Commons, elected by a First Past the Post system that regularly returns majorities for parties who command less than the majority of the popular vote. Our current Parliament is a case in point. And the House of Lords, which is an entirely unelected chamber. It has less power than the House of Commons, but to say it has no power would be naive.
Finally, we have an unelected, hereditary Head of State in the monarch.
So how does that sound as far as government by the people for the people is concerned?
What are the constraints?
Generally speaking, a government should enact laws that broadly flow from the manifesto on which they stood for election. This is observed in the exception, more than in the norm. And because our electoral system throws up majorities that give governments more power than they should have – and the current government is a case in point – they do things they never talked about during the campaign. And they get away with it. Why?
Here, we get to the whip system. We should really be worried by the fact that we have people in our Parliament who are officially called Whips. Each of the parties has them – except those parties that have only 1 MP. And in the case of the Green Party, it is party policy not to subject elected representatives to such an antiquated form of authority.
The whip system basically says this: the party leadership decides how they want to vote on a particular matter before Parliament and they tell their members to vote that way. Members are obliged to do so; some don’t always do that which is called ‘defying the whip’. This simple act of voting on the basis of analysis, thought, values, and engagement with constituents is described as defiance in our democracy.
But there is more: MPs (on the government side) are appointed to be Secretaries of State and Ministers and Junior Ministers. In other words, they remain MPs but they are also part of the government.
On the opposition benches, there is a similar set-up but the people concerned are called the ‘shadow’ Secretary, Minister, or Junior Minister or spokesperson.
What does that mean? All of them are bound by ministerial protocol which seriously curtails their ability to engage in common parliamentary activities such as signing Early Day Motions and taking part in what is called ‘back-bench’ business. They also commonly don’t speak on matters outside of their portfolio.
Where does that leave their constituents? As a constituent who has been represented since 2010 by either a junior minister or a shadow junior minister, I can tell you where it leaves you: frustrated!
What is the alternative?
We need electoral reform: a system of proportional representation (the Additional Member System used in the London Assembly and the Scottish Assembly works well) which means that a broader range of views are represented in the parliament. This would also allow those MPs who are likely to take on ministerial or shadow ministerial positions to be elected through the list system and thus not compromise the functions of a constituency MP: to represent and listen to their constituents.
We need constitutional reform: we need an elected second chamber (again, with PR); we need an elected Head of State; we need a chamber for the parliament which is circular (to avoid the unedifying shouting matches) and which has sufficient seats for all MPs.
And that’s just Westminster. Wait till I start on devolution, local government and democracy and real engagement of the public. But that’s for another blog.