Thursday, July 12, 2012

A failing democracy

Yesterday I posted about corruption in the House of Lords and the apparent failure of the Commons to reform it - an example of the UK's sick democracy. but that isn't the only problem with the UK's democracy, as Democratic Audit has discovered:

A study into the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade warns it is in "long-term terminal decline" as the power of corporations keeps growing, politicians become less representative of their constituencies and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs.

The report by Democratic Audit shared exclusively with the Guardian notes there have been many positive advances over the last 10 years: stronger select committees of MPs holding ministers and civil servants to account; devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and publication of much more information about politicians' expenses and party donors. But it found evidence of many other areas where Britain appeared to have moved further away from its two benchmarks of representative democracy: control over political decision-making, and how fairly the system reflects the population it represents – a principle most powerfully embedded in the concept of one person, one vote.

Among its concerns, identified from databases of official statistics and public surveys, were that Britain's constitutional arrangements are "increasingly unstable" owing to changes such as devolution; public faith in democratic institutions "decaying"; a widening gap in the participation rates of different social classes of voters; and an "unprecedented" growth in corporate power, which the study's authors warn "threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making".

Its a long article, but worth reading in full. And going through it, I'm struck by how many of the problems come down to the UK's archaic democratic institutions, and particularly their unfair voting system. First past the post means unrepresentative Parliaments, which combined with a long Parliamentary term means government strongly insulated from the people. It means MPs serving for life in safe seats. It means women and ethnic minority candidates not being selected, and thus being under-represented in the House. It means single-party government which can do whatever it likes (the present coalition being the exception which proves the rule). Throw in an unelected House of Lords, and you have government of, by and for the elite, not the people.

As Democratic Audit points out, other countries, even other Westminster systems, do much better in the democratic stakes, producing more response and representative government. For all it prides itself on being "the mother of Parliaments", Britain is uniquely bad at democracy.

So how to fix it, and drag the UK into the 21st century? Sadly, I don't think there's much hope. As we've seen over both electoral reform and Lords reform, Britain's MPs put their own interests ahead of democracy, and vote down or cripple any attempt at improvement. Mere preferential voting was unacceptable to them; imagine how they'd react to a truly democratic system such as MMP. But if they don't reform, they will face increasing problems of legitimacy, while pushing people towards non-democratic means of seeking change.

The full report, How Demococratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit can be read here]