Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Democratic reform in the UK

In 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust established an independent inquiry to investigate how to improve democratic participation in Britain. Yesterday, it reported back [PDF], laying out a blueprint for sweeping changes to Britain's constitutional system to strengthen democracy at every level.

The problem with Britain's democracy is not that people have given up on politics (a favourite claim among politicians, but one belied by increased public involvement in every political organisation other than formal political parties). It's that they've given up on politicians, and on a political system where their voices are not heard and their votes do not seem to make a difference. On the latter point, most of the UK's single-member constituencies are safe seats for one party or another, meaning that their constituents can be safely ignored. Only voters in marginal seats seem to count. Meanwhile, as ministers and party spokespeople are usually carpetbagged into safe seats, the public has no effective way of holding them to account. And on the former, the government acts as if responding to strongly expressed public opinion - for example, the massive protests against British involvement in Iraq - is akin to giving in to terrorism. And then they wonder why people refuse to endorse them with their vote...

If Britain's democracy is to improve, this has to change. And the first and most obvious step is ditching the UK's archaic "first past the post" (simple plurality) voting system and replacing it with one which ensures that every vote counts equally, and where politicians can properly be held to account. The report doesn't specify a solid preference here, though it does seem sympathetic to STV. Personally, I prefer the greater proportionality of pre or hybrid PR systems such as MMP - but given the woeful state of the UK's electoral system, pretty much anything would be an improvement.

The other "headline" recommendation is lowering the voting and candidacy age to 16. The aim of this is to get more young people involved, but I think the better argument is that these people's interests (and they do have them) are not currently properly represented, which goes against the general principle in democratic systems of trying to cast the net as wide as possible. The inevitable arguments will be made that sixteen year olds lack sufficient judgement to vote, or will vote according to "fashion" (as if older people don't) - but the same arguments were made a hundred years ago against women voting, and earlier than that against the poor. Meanwhile, they are considered old enough to go to jail, which is a fairly strong argument in favour. After all, if they're subject to criminal law, shouldn't they have some say in what that law should be?

In addition, the report recommends capping political donations, notifying the public of Minister's meetings with lobbyists and industry groups, electing most (but not all?) of the House of Lords, and generally weakening the executive while strengthening Parliament and devolving power to local authorities. It's an excellent recipe for democratic reform in the UK - and one that I expect will be never be implemented, at least while Tony Blair (with his authoritarian and centralising tendencies) is still Prime Minister. But that will eventually change, and then hopefully we'll see some real democratic reform in the UK.


or possibly poeple find in democracy their vote only counts for 1/60 million (with basically zero chance of deciding any elections no matter what the system) so they would rather be involved in actions where they have more influence such as, theoretically, marches and so forth.

Posted by Genius : 2/28/2006 06:42:00 AM

"as ministers and party spokespeople are usually carpetbagged into safe seats"

That doesn't happen as much as you might think. What tends to happen is that if you want to be an MP, you start out running for a hopeless seat, then work your way up to a winnable or safe seat.

Some MPs with big majorities become ministers - and the constituency parties in these seats can pick and choose, so they often get a high profile candidate who might become a minister. Other MPs (like Chris Patten) become ministers despite being an MP for a marginal seat - and can then lose their seat later.

It's in those cases where they can get shoed in at the next by-election - but it's not standard practice. (Patten became the last HK governor, then a European commissioner and is now a peer).

It's one of the few disadvantages of PR that this system of "training" potential MPs doesn't really fit in.

Posted by Rich : 2/28/2006 09:53:00 AM

Compared to woeful state of US democracy, the UK version is humming along very well.

My Fruits and Votes post to the effect that maybe only 33 of 435 US House seats will be competitive this year has sparked an interesting cross-national discussion in the comments.

How was the situation in the FPTP days in NZ?

Posted by Anonymous : 2/28/2006 11:44:00 AM

Matthew: It depends what you mean by "competitive", but in the biggest landslide ever (1991), National stripped Labour of practically every seat that was not completely safe, and had a majority of 37 in a 97-seat Parliament. Which is probably about as good an indicator of what is truly "competitive" as we'll get.

In practice, majorities were much smaller, and the number of seats really "in play" would have been about half that.

I should probably go and dig up some old electoral pendulums; they seem to have gone out of fashion with MMP, now that electorates are pretty much irrelevant to government formation...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/02/2006 11:12:00 AM

I assume you mean 1990, which, as you note, was an outlier.

If you find the pendulums, I'd be interested in the information (at the F&V post if you wouldn't mind). Thanks.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/02/2006 02:25:00 PM