Ten years after the expenses scandal which shattered confidence in British politics, campaign group Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has delivered a report designed to rebuild Britain’s democratic system. The report – Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division – seeks to heal the deep divisions in British politics through electoral reform.
“Like the building itself, the political system is crumbling'”
The palace of Westminster is quite literally crumbling. As the Guardian reported in 2017:
It is a fire risk. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its way through the building. Many of the pipes and cables that carry heat, water, electricity and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970s; some of them date from the 19th century.
For the ERS, there could be few better metaphors for the state of British politics than its very own epicentre. As ERS director of policy and research Dr Jess Garland said in a press release:
Few can deny that Westminster is falling apart, in every sense. Like the building itself, the political system is crumbling. Faith in politics is declining – and yet over the years almost nothing has been done to deal with the decay.
Polling in the report backs this up, detailing how:
- “Two-thirds (67%) of people feel like they have no or very few opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by their elected representatives”.
- “Almost half (47%) of people do not feel at all or very represented by parties at Westminster”.
- “64% of people think that our political system should encourage cooperation between political parties, only 19% believe that it currently does so”.
The result is a combination of “disengagement”, “political polarisation and geographical inequality”, and a general apathy towards politics in Britain. As such, Brexit is described as but a symptom of a wider political malaise. It therefore follows that the solution to Brexit must be found in electoral reform.
Five key recommendations
The study’s five key recommendations focus on decentralisation of power, reformation of the House of Lords, and greater citizen control over political decision-making. The ERS summarised these as follows:
- “The UK 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.”
- “The next government must reform the House of Lords as a priority. No more reviews: there have been nine attempts at reforming the House of Lords, if we only consider white papers, commissions, draft bills and acts. It is time for real action.”
- “An elected second chamber must serve as the forum in which the four nations – and England’s localities– can work together in the 21st century. This reformed chamber would be where UK-wide, sub-national, and cross-border issues are discussed.”
- “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.”
- “Citizens’ assemblies should be used at the local level in a systematic and embedded manner to deal with complex and contested issues.”
Citizens’ assemblies are where a random selection of people representative of a country’s voting population come together, receive all the information on a subject, discuss it, and work out how to move forward. Such assemblies led to the abortion and equal marriage referendums in Ireland.
Although the report’s key recommendations are popular among the British public, few top-level efforts have been made to enact them. Recent polls show that the House of Lords, for example, is generally seen negatively by the British public.
In short, the ERS is calling for a dramatic overhaul of Britain’s electoral system. And in such a divided country, a radical reform of the electoral system is one of few things it seems many people could agree on.
Featured image via Byline festival, used by the Canary with permission
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