LONG READ

The Degrading and Renewal of UK Democracy – Part 2

Democracy - Yorkshire Bylines - CC BY-SA 4.0
Democracy – Yorkshire Bylines – CC BY-SA 4.0

Democratic System Failures

Part One identified some ways in which the decline of UK democracy has impacted negatively on the quality and representativeness of government.
Part Two considers how and why some of those failures occurred:

Class War Politics

Two main UK political parties, gaining 75% of the votes and 82% of the seats in 2019, do not compete with each other on equal terms. The Tory Party favours business and the wealthy with low tax, low regulation, small state and law enforcement policies, attracting huge donations. Historically the Labour Party base was the ‘working class’, with policies, regulations and laws to protect and support the less well-off, financed by trade unions, membership dues and small donations. This unequal two-party duopoly-of-power situation fosters a class war type of politics with a divided nation as a result.

Russian Influence

London remains the dirty money capital of the world. City firms cater for wealthy foreigners who want to launder money, often ill-gotten, using the many legal opportunities of lax or unenforced regulations to buy or own companies or other assets where their identities and money are concealed (LedbyDonkeys video). The Tory Party, not moving against this activity, has benefited from it with massive donations from grateful oligarchs. No other UK political party has such wealth at its disposal, which has a very distorting effect on UK democracy.

The Intelligence Select Committee Report on Russian penetration of the UK, with its recommendation that Russian money and influence in the UK should be investigated, was withheld by the Prime Minister for months during the 2019 Election and the Brexit process. Its recommendations have never been followed up.

Excessive Prime Ministerial Power

The Prime Minister wields enormous power including: patronage of donors and unelected people, complete legislative authority, appointing loyal people to the Cabinet and the House of Lords and public institutions, arbiter of the Ministerial Code and overlord of communications and ministerial decisions.

Without checks on this power, the UK is an effective elective dictatorship, with. Parliamentary Sovereignty a fiction, and Parliament a rubber stamp. So much concentrated power is unhealthy, even dangerous, in a democracy.

The Misplaced Loyalties of MPs

Successful parliamentary candidates, particularly those selected for Government office, render such excessive loyalty to the Party and the Prime Minister, that their independence is compromised. The penalty for not toeing the Party line is loss of job, salary, status, loss of the whip, and probably loss of their seat, which is a price most MPs won’t pay.

A majority of MPs in the House of Commons thought Brexit was a bad idea, or were at least against a hard or No-Deal Brexit, including Johnson, Truss, May and my own local Tory MP. But these and many other MPs put their personal careers and party loyalty ahead of the national interest.

Many MPs (Johnson – Wallpapergate, Patterson – Radox and Cox – British Virgin Islands) are willing to abuse power, and compromise any principles they have when it comes to side-earnings, consultancy fees, salaries and perks from businesses and individuals, and to lobby for outside influence in the corridors of power.

Unrepresentative MPs and Ministers

Open Democracy, Ed Jones (2 June 2017) shows how unrepresentative our MPs and Ministers are. Many Tories were privately educated and went to Oxbridge. Many Tory cabinet members are millionaires. An MP’s annual salary is £84,000, nearly three times the UK average of £32,000. Many MPs have little experience of the hazards of life for the majority of citizens.

A much greater diversity of people is needed to constitute a representative democracy, to deliver decisions and legislation which are most relevant to most citizens.

To even stand as a candidate is likely to cost £10,000 plus, which rules out many people (see ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’, Isabel Hardman, reviewed by Andrew Rawnsley, The Guardian, 2/9/2018).

Concentration of Political Power in Westminster

Political power in the UK is very centralised and England has nothing like the devolution seen in European countries. Most local government activities are directly funded by and legislated for by Central Government, leaving local authorities little independence.

Over the last decade, Central Government financial support for English Local Government fell by 37% per person, (Institute for Fiscal Studies report November 2019).

Central government power has increased in proportion. The UK is the most regionally unbalanced nation in Europe, in terms of power and wealth distribution.

Electoral System

An Electoral Reform Society report (Democracy Made in England) powerfully argues that Local Government in England is under-funded, under-powered, and weakened by the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system:

“Proportional representation for local elections, as used in Scotland, would help reinvigorate democracy at the local level, ending the proliferation of one-party states and single-party domination of council chambers, and open up councils to a diversity of voices”.

The Elections Act 2022 reinstated First Past the Post for Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, in a partisan, undemocratic move.

Capitalist Economics

For decades foreign owners have been allowed to buy strategic British companies. Recent examples are Morrisons and Asda supermarkets to US private equity, P&O to DWP in Dubai and a UK submarine equipment maker to a Chinese company. The gig economy expanded, workers’ rights reduced and unions were side-lined.

Tory philosophy ‘The Market always gets it right’ justified the mass exodus of strategic state assets and state control to the private sector during the Thatcher era and after. With light regulation, this undermined democracy by removing these industries from state control, putting citizens at the mercy of market forces, overseas companies, countries and investors.

The Media.

A few wealthy individuals and organisations have amassed vast political and economic power and distorted the UK media and political landscape to suit their interests. This is deeply undemocratic – (Who Owns the Media?, Media Reform Coalition, 2021) :

“Just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) dominate 90% of the national newspaper market (up from 71% in 2015). When online readers are included, these three companies dominate 80% of the market. In the area of local news, just six companies (Gannett, JPI Media, Reach, Tindle, Archant and Iliffe) account for nearly 84% of all titles. Two companies, Bauer and Global, now control nearly 70% of all local commercial analogue radio stations and 60% of national commercial digital stations.

Facebook controls three of the top five social media services used to access online news in the UK, while traditional news organisations account for 48% of Facebook users’ news sources.

The BBC remains a powerful presence in online and broadcasting but its budget has been massively cut by the last three licence fee deals and its room for manoeuvre has been limited by commercial competition and political pressure.”

Campaign group Hacked Off said IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) has never sanctioned a newspaper for sexist press coverage since it was established in 2014. The group’s head of communications Sara Badawi said:

“IPSO’s decision to reject all complaints about The Mail On Sunday’s patently misogynistic article about Angela Rayner MP indicates they are either powerless or unwilling to address the culture of discrimination and impunity across much of the national press. IPSO is ……designed to give the perception of accountability whilst sheltering its members from any prospect of genuine regulation.”

Byline Times (Brian Cathcart, 8/3/22) reports the Prime Minister as giving tax-payer-funded bungs to billionaire press barons under cover of Covid payments.

An Open Society?

Government accountability to Parliament is vital for democracy to prevail. Recent examples of Government unwillingness to be accountable include the Prime Minister’s Office (Partygate, Wallpaper-gate etc), the illegal use of private email accounts, private phones and texts, disappearing phones and messages, delays in responding to Freedom of Information requests, lying in Parliament, and misuse of the legal system to delay or discourage Judicial Review appellants. Government has covered up its activities. Lack of transparency and dishonesty deeply undermines democracy.

Rule of Law

The UK Government has broken the Law on several recent occasions:  around the delayed departure of the UK from the EU in autumn 2019, the Internal Market Bill, the Covid Regulations and the Overseas Operations Bill. The Government tried illegally to prorogue Parliament in 2019. It is now intending unilaterally to suspend the NI Protocol. Democratic government requires respect for the Rule of Law.

Undemocratic Legislation

Many current Bills or Acts of Parliament are intrinsically undemocratic:

  • Health and Care Act. Additional powers to the Secretary of State and the private sector through Commissioning Boards.
  • Overseas Operations Act. Criticised by Amnesty International as incompatible with our human rights obligations.
  • Internal Market Act. Criticised for being inconsistent with International Law.
  • Online Safety Bill. Criticised by Hacked Off for excluding the press from new regulations which will apply to social media.
  • Elections Act. Criticised by Angela Rayner (Guardian, 3/9/21):

“… a blatant attempt to rig democracy in favour of the Conservative Party by suppressing votes, gagging organised opposition and neutering our independent electoral watchdog’.

  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Opposed by many people, and organisations such as Liberty (Joshua Clements, Guardian, 9.8.21).

The Police Bill is not about law and order – it’s about state control”.

  • Judicial Review and Courts Act. Weakens the rights of individuals through the courts, and increases the rights of the state, weakening Government accountability. Jo Hickman, Director of the Public Law Project:

“It is particularly troubling that the Government is planning to … create a framework for future legislation to ‘oust’ the jurisdiction of the courts.” 

  • Nationality and Borders Act. The worst of all in terms of dishonouring UK democracy, received withering criticism from many sources, including Amnesty International:

“The Bill ought to respect and uphold the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention but it does the very opposite … It’s unlawful for the UK to fail to respect the Convention … The Bill also undermines the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Reduction of Statelessness”.

Short-termism, Cynicism and False Promises

Power-hungry Governments constantly have an eye on what will help them get re-elected, which is detrimental to planning and implementing the fundamental reforms needed to make the UK a fairer and more prosperous society.

The 2019 election was partly won by the Tory Party on the strength of the ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘Global Britain’ and ‘Levelling-Up’ slogans.

For the Prime Minister, ‘Getting Brexit Done’ meant signing an agreement with the EU.  For the UK nation, it has meant exiting from the world’s biggest and best trading alliance on our doorstep, and huge, self-inflicted, self-harm in return for no visible benefit. Brexit was the biggest ‘False Promise’ of them all. The consequences are as dire as most people were told, though the true message was drowned out by the distortion, deceit and misinformation on an industrial scale from the right wing. The Brexit Deal was the biggest stitch-up for UK democracy in living memory.

Global Britain’ consists of sending a warship on tour to the Far East, and signing environmental-standards-busting trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.

Levelling Up’. The Government has shown it has no idea what Levelling Up means or how to do it. Levelling Down has been widely evident though, as poverty and inequality levels rise.

The Prime Minister

Johnson, well known as an amoral, self-serving, unprincipled charlatan, was enthusiastically chosen by the Tory Party as their new leader and as Prime Minister. Tory Party responsibility for diminishing UK democracy in the furtherance of their electoral interests goes back at least to Thatcher, but under Johnson, their undemocratic behaviours, policies and legislation have become outrageous.

In Summary

UK Citizens and voters should decide if they want a fairer, less divided, more prosperous Social Democracy such as the Scandinavian countries and Germany, or one of the alternatives: strong man rule like Orban, Bolsonaro or Erdogan, with rigged elections and nobbled media and judiciary; chaotic division, racism, rigged elections and nastiness with Trump; or dictatorship with Putin. Without a major repair and renewal of UK democracy, we are headed on present trends for something bad.   

Ed: Part Three offers some ideas for reversing this massive decline of democracy in the UK, and for modernising the system.


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