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UK Democracy is broken. Here’s how we can fix it.

In light of Liz Truss entering office as PM, Jack Twyman examines the state of our political system.

As a new prime minister enters office after only earning 57% of the Conservative member vote and receiving the lowest vote share of any tory leader there is clearly something wrong with our democracy. Within the space of three years the UK is under the governance of a leader the electorate has not chosen. Even the fact that Boris Johnson was allowed to act as crudely as he did, and it took consecutive scandal and scandal to finally oust him, suggests that the checks and balances on our government system are not fit for purpose.

Currently in the UK we have a Labour party running high in the polls for not much else than not being Tory. It is facing an improbable task of reconciling the wants of its traditional working-class voters with a newly found cosmopolitan elite. If Labour can become a credible voice for both camps simultaneously, then it will hold the key to electoral success. However, it could be said that having both camps represented in a parliament, and both given a proportional voice offers a much better solution. Instead of the industrial action seen now, these voices would be in parliament, and potentially in office. The Lib Dems did well in recent by-elections in previous Tory strongholds because they weren’t Tory, and they weren’t Labour.

Proportional representation has its flaws. Israel’s government is complex and relies on normally weak coalitions that have many issues; it has never had an outright majority in the Knesset (Parliament). Yet research has shown that Proportional Representation countries do not have more elections than their counterparts, and this example is perhaps emblematic of the unique and challenging situation Israel is in.  There are many other examples of success. The Scottish Parliament uses an Additional Member Voting system: the voting system combines the traditional First Past the Post system (FPP) and Proportional Representation (PR) to elect constituency and regional members. Voters have 2 votes in these elections and chose multiple MSPs who are all available for contact and representation.

According to the Make Votes Matter group, general elections in Germany and New Zealand use additional member voting and in Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden Open or Flexible List proportional representation ensures MPs are elected to multi-member constituencies – so each voter has a number of MPs to represent them. Parties put forward lists of candidates for each constituency and voters choose which party to support and are then able to vote for specific candidates standing for that party giving more choice to voters. In the Single Transferrable Vote system used in Ireland, Malta and the Australian Senate, rather than voting for party lists, voters rank candidates in order of preference and can include candidates from any party in their ranking, giving voters a great deal of choice. Candidates need a particular number of votes to be elected. Excess votes for winning candidates and votes for losing candidates are reallocated according to the voters’ preferences until all seats are filled. Proportional Representation is no longer an abstract concept. According to World Population Review, 81 countries have some form of proportional voting from Brazil and Indonesia to Australia, Liechtenstein and South Africa. This means over 1.7 billion people enjoy this progressive form of voting.

Not everyone agrees, and it is clear to see why. The 2011 Alternative Voting Referendum was defeated with an overwhelming majority – yet the arguments were blurred and proportional representation supporters were themselves split over which way to vote. Condescending voices from business professionals will pander with quotes like “The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But voter disinformation and political stagnation is more to blame than any voter for the ills facing the country. For the ruling party to have nothing more to offer than Populist slogans and instigating Culture Wars against vulnerable groups in society, it becomes clear that Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate” holds true. And yes, proportional representation does open up the possibility of uninformed extreme fringe opinions gaining a credible and magnified voice; but who are we to discount those voices and ignore them – surely settlements and solutions can be made if we talk as opposed to fight? The dictatorial atmosphere that surrounded the Johnson government in its final year would be unlikely to happen under proportional representation checks and balances are guaranteed because a single party would not be expected to be able to fully dominate government. In the supposed ‘sweeping’ majority of the 2019 General Election only 43% of a low 67% turnout voted for Jonhson’s Tories yet they received 56% of total seats. The Green Party and Brexit Party received over 2% of the vote respectively yet only secured one seat between them. This represents a disenfranchisement of nearly 5% of the electorate. 

Perhaps the low turnout is emblematic of the disassociation with politics shared in much of society. It is no coincidence that the signatory parties of the Good Systems Agreement (campaign for electoral reform) do not include the two major players of Labour and the Conservatives and instead include Reform UK, Green Party, NI Alliance, Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The principle that every vote should count is surely uncontroversial. People in safe seats shouldn’t be kept in a perpetual cycle where their vote doesn’t count. Democracy should give power to the people, not those who can manipulate voting in such a way as to restrict some votes. For me, my seat has always been Conservative and that is unlikely to change – for me my vote is a matter of principle not actually influencing the result.

Issues arise when funding is able to be directed by governments to target swing seats and shore up majorities in areas controlled by the ruling party. This was made plainly clear when Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor, claimed at a leadership husting in Tumbridge Wells – a Tory constituency held since its creation in 1974 – “We inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone. I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserved.” The risk of this is unlikely to be changed unless coalition governments with various agendas are able to compromise and address multiple needs and concerns consecutively. Perhaps the best place to start would be the reformation of the current parliamentary system. The anti-establishment vote to leave the UK offers some answers as to why this is the case.

Ultimately many of the political challenges facing the UK today are resultant of the Brexit decision. Scottish independence. The Northern Ireland Protocol. Rising prices. The list goes on. For incoming PM Truss this is going to be an ever-increasing challenge. Recent polls find that a majority of Brits support re-joining the EU. But this isn’t the only alternative. The EU in principle is a good project, but it is bloated with bureaucracy and inefficiency. Even Liz Truss conceded whilst campaigning for remain in May 2016 that she was campaigning for membership of ‘a reformed EU’. With German Chancellor Scholtz and French President Macron both vying for EU reforms now is the time to negotiate and achieve a better working relationship than the one now. European Unity in the face of a Ukraine War is paramount. Freedom of movement to the UK and vice versa is mutually beneficial and the crisis of unfilled vacancies can be put down to this. The UK is a nation whose heritage derives from around the world and shutting people who could help and deliver for us out is not a solution.

Resistance to this principle, and the strong-holds of the Leave vote cover areas affected by historic inequities that have yet to be rectified. The supposed levelling up of the North has yet to materialise and is a pressing concern. While the issue is not as simple as the generalisation that the north/south divide name suggests, it can be the framework for policies that are effective from day one. Inaction under Labour and Conservative governments have exacerbated the problem, and disillusionment for many voters. Further dissolution of power may be needed to allow these regions to self-determine their future and put funding where it is needed most. Reparations have been touted as an idea for the North, and this in the form of education schemes, investment in transport infrastructure and business incentives are all ways that reforms could be made. The energy crisis facing the UK today is mostly the result of mismanagement of the energy sector and has led prices to rise far higher than comparable economies in France and Italy.

The issue is that in the current political system the incentive is on short-term high reward schemes that win votes. Little attentionis paid to long-term projects like supply-side policies that will bring higher reward long term. This is not a problem localised to the UK as wherever democracy exists a lack of inspiration for long term policies isn’t hard to find. Reconciling this fact while allowing for a healthy democracy with short parliamentary terms is a challenge. HS2 has proved how contention this issue is, and whilst going ahead, is subject to uncertainty and suspicion from many along its route. Who should make decisions like these?

The answer lies in who governs the ministries of state. Civil servants are good even if torn apart in the recent Tory leadership election. So an expert at the helm would allow policies to be understood and enacted far quicker. Looking at the COVID Pandemic, unelected medical experts were able to offer much more to the country than the elected health secretary. But experts need steering by elected policies and their priorities. While the specifics of this can be debated, what is certain is that Ministers should not be MPs who simultaneously represent constituencies. This conflict of interest will neglect both roles and their responsibility.

Furthermore, the entire UK parliamentary system is confusing. Issues representing England are debated in the chamber with MPs from all nations.  And the House of Lords continuing in the 21st Century represents the continued persistence of a privileged elite holding office without election. There is much desire for change in its form, as well as voting system. Abolishing the house of Lords would allow for a radical change to UK governance. Perhaps a devolved English Parliament would allow for better regional representation and addressing of domestic issues. A parliament situated in the North would represent a shifting of English priorities. Then the actual UK parliament could be a place where significant foreign policy and UK-wide fiscal policy could be discussed separately to each devolved nation. Empowering the existing devolution that exists in the country to make bold decisions on infrastructure and regenerative projects is the most feasible way to actually level up.

The continued use of UK parliament for English issues is symbolically offensive for other UK nations and represents the English dominance of its politics. In a time when nationalist unrest is gripping the three non-English UK nations, surely measures to ease this should be a priority. Ultimately society is merely on a progression of advancement. Is it possible that automation of manual labour will give rise to a post-Capitalist society where everyone has the freedom to do what they want with increased financial autonomy? Yes. And society is already on that path. But the situation facing the country in the immediate future offers both a chance for change, and also allows the status quo to cling on.

While the specifics of political reform will continue to be debated the gist of its premise is clear. UK politics currently focuses on personality cults and media pandering. Currently it cares less about helping the people politicians represent and more about their own biparty quarrelling and entering government. How did working class voters decide that Etonian elites were the best to represent their issues on a national level? Why did England and Wales vote to leave the EU despite the apparent financial consequences? We need to make politics an accessible space where one does not have to sell one’s soul to join two parties to stand a chance of being elected. Politicians should work for us, not for themselves. Entry into politics needs to become more about innovative ideas and courage and less about who you know to get you into the mainstream. We as a country need to ignore those who seek to divide us and remember what can and will make Britain great. Politics has now become less about the historic right and left divide, and more about social values rather than economic thinking. The Tories now seek to embed their red wall breakthrough while Labour wants to expand its gains in the city. There are many ways to achieve this: increased objective press scrutiny, the removal of the two party system to allow for individuals to be promoted and deemed credible will help, plentiful internship opportunities, and much more to be worked on. We shouldn’t be voting for the least bad option, that is no way to incentive initiative. With proportional representation, parliamentary reform, and a voter-forced change in political priorities, change can be won.

Image credit: Adi Ulici

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