The current corruption scandal is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the failures of representative democracy. Curtis Daily breaks down how our current system evolved, why it’s not fit for purpose, and some alternatives we could be using instead.
Conservative MP Owen Paterson was recently exposed for breaking parliamentary rules after he took payments from companies for access to ministers and government departments.
As much as we could talk about the sleazy individual, I want to go beyond that. I want to talk about our system. With the Paterson scandal, it makes you wonder, are we a failing democracy?
Basically, we’re not doing very well. Let’s dive into our so-called democratic systems.
Former PM David Cameron messaged government ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital, he also reportedly earned $10m from them. Cameron tried to persuade ministers to invest tax payers money in loans for Greensill. Sure, he faced questions and released a statement – but no punishment nor a meaningful review of the rules followed. Senior civil servant Bill Crothers had a second job at Greensill, which is a clear conflict of interest, yet nothing has been done to this day about government officials and second jobs.
Boris Johnson faced no disciplinary action for texting James Dyson about UK tax laws, it’s anti democratic when business leaders can just phone our PM but us workers can’t.
The nature of lobbying in itself isn’t actually bad. Groups such as Greenpeace and unions have a right to put pressure on governments in order to represent millions of workers, or to take care of this burning planet.
Yet all sides are not equal, because businesses have the deepest pockets and want to help shape laws that give them more profits over the welfare of the rest of us.
David Cameron introduced legislation in 2014 under the guise of improving the situation…. Yet actually made it worse.
In this new bill, lobbyists who worked for private consultancy firms had to sign the statutory register . The problem with this is that they only make up 1% of lobbyists in the UK. Representatives of large corporations were made exempt, giving more power to big companies.
House of Lords
Originating in the 11th century, the House of Lords consisted of religious leaders and ministers of the monarch. Three centuries later, the lords evolved into two houses of Parliament with representatives from towns and cities meeting in the commons. Fast forward to the 17th century, after the 1642 civil war, the House of Lords was abolished in 1649, only to be brought back 11 years later by Charles the 2nd. The 1689 Bill of rights was then introduced which gave power to parliament over the king.
“The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House.” A series of small changes were made throughout the 20th and 21st century until 2011, when the first meaningful bill to overhaul the Lords was put to Parliament. Nick Clegg, who was the deputy PM, set out a proposal to transform the House of Lords to an elected chamber leaving only 20% appointed.
This effectively would abolish the Lords system as we know it, but it was dropped in 2012.
Electing Upper Chamber
The Electoral Reform Society has championed the idea of abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected upper chamber for quite some time. As it stands, this current government can appoint their own peers, which means it can tip the balance of the house in its favour.
If members of parliament decide to no longer listen to their constituents, we could have a chance to scrutinise them through our elected representatives in the second house. If those in the upper chamber aren’t scrutinising the commons, well, no worries, we’ll chuck you out.
Having a system based on heredity and favour is incredibly archaic and doesn’t belong in the 21st century.
First Past The Post
First Past the Post is our current, and the most basic, voting system. Aside from coalitions which is a rarity, the biggest party usually wins. There are no other options but to choose one party.
The huge issue with this system is the democratic deficit, as it’s the least democratic out of any other democratic system.
Because we are a parliamentary democracy, a government is formed by the amount of seats it wins, not necessarily the amount of votes it receives. Whilst most of the time the two roughly correlate, it’s not guaranteed.
The current model can have a party bias. For example the Tories don’t actually have to win more votes than Labour. In-fact, in a recent poll where Labour was ahead, the Tories would still win more seats than Labour despite having less votes. That’s because votes can be concentrated in particular areas, creating so-called ‘safe seats’. Ever been told that your vote doesn’t matter, since one party has such a strong hold on an area?
Here you can see the breakdown of the last three general elections, this is a graph of the difference between votes and seats.
In Canada, the last general election resulted in the Liberal party winning despite losing the popular vote.
First Past the Post doesn’t give smaller parties a chance, therefore it means you’re forced to vote for the ‘least bad option’ rather than the party you actually want to vote for. Under a different voting system such as Proportional Representation, the Greens would have 11 seats. The only parties that can win under this system are either Labour or Conservative, yet you might not want either of them. Doesn’t seem very democratic at all.
Single Transferable Vote
The STV is a proportional system that is currently used in Scotland, in the North and Republic of Ireland, Malta, and Australia.
How does it work?
The system works by having more than one candidate representing an area and therefore a wider range of views held by the constituents who live there. The number of candidates depends on how big the constituency is. Parties typically field more than one candidate and voters choose as many as they like, from a range of parties, and rank them in order of preference.
To win, candidates need to pass a certain number of votes, called a ‘quota’, with votes being counted in stages, in order of preference, and with candidates being elected or eliminated at each stage. In the end, this system generally results in a more representative range of candidates taking office.
Representative vs Direct Democracy
There are many forms of democratic systems, but most are built on two foundations: representative democracy and direct democracy.
Here in the UK, we elect candidates who represent us in parliament. The candidates can debate and vote on legislation that is more complicated than most people have the time to grasp. Many of us live busy lives, with no time for researching every individual bill, so it’s easier to have a person whose life is dedicated to this function.
The big flaw in this system, however, is the disconnect from the people and lack of direct accountability. A candidate may change their views, become influenced by money in politics, or simply lie about their views in order to get elected. Moreover, they may be voting on things that they don’t have the time or inclination to fully understand.
Direct democracy seeks to challenge this issue, where the public can vote on each individual policy or bill. The increase in democratic participation stops vested interests getting in the way.
It also helps solve the partisan issue when it comes to political parties. Voters don’t have to choose their ‘team’, as it’s individual policies that are the focal point. Certain constituencies who may have not voted for a particular government can still have a say in how it’s run.
One example of direct democracy is Switzerland. Any constitutional change must be put to the country via a referendum.
Members of the public can also demand a change to the constitution, which becomes eligible for a vote as long as there are 100,000 signatures within 18 months.
Direct democracy requires strong public engagement and also access to unbiased and clear information on which to make decisions. This system only works when most of the public participate, otherwise a small number of the same people would be making the decisions, which isn’t all that far from the representative system.
Switzerland is a partly direct democracy, partly representative. A truer form of direct democracy is democratic confederalism, which is central to the Kurdish liberation movement and practiced in the autonomous region of Rojava. Centered on principles of non-hierarchical and decentralized democracy, it is based on feminist and ecological principles and decision making by consent.
These ideas and systems only scratch the surface, but it’s worth thinking differently about what’s possible. One thing is for certain, our democracy is flawed.
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