LONG READ

The Degrading and Renewal of UK Democracy – Part 3

Sunak and Truss - Official Portraits
Sunak and Truss – Official Portraits

Some Ideas for the Renewal of UK Democracy

Part One identified some ways in which the decline of UK democracy has impacted negatively on the quality and representativeness of government.
Part Two considered how and why some of those failures occurred.
Part Three offers some ideas for reversing this massive decline of democracy in the UK, and for modernising the system.

Ed: This article is a VERY LONG READ but the effort repays itself.

Major Problems of UK Government and Democracy

For many years UK citizens have been ill-served by their Parliament and Governments. Decision quality, fairness, representativeness, managerial competence, long term strategic thinking and forward planning have all been generally poor. This is because the political process is decades out of date, is dominated by too many professional politicians with little ordinary, business, scientific or technical experience, and the democratic process has been undermined by deeply partisan, self-serving interests.

The present two-party system of Government with its First Past the Post (FPTP) system is divisive and adversarial. It encourages short-termism and extreme policies rather than long term pragmatic management for the good of all the electorate, one half of which feels that the elected government is not ‘our’ government.

Over the last forty years we have a Tory administration for two thirds of the time. This favoured a small state, low taxes and minimal regulation but with an underlying ethic of ‘One Nation Conservatism’. This has changed radically recently with funding from business groups and a right-wing press neither of whom have the country’s interests at heart.

The USA is no longer a role model and is even more influenced by business and a right wing press. UK is in danger following America’s lead.

To turn this deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs around in a short time would be impossible. But a start could be made with some of the following ideas, so that over the longer term a more equitable, happier and wealthier society could emerge with citizen well-being for all at its heart.   

Reform of Parliament

There is so much wrong with Parliament that there would be much resistance to change. Only the Select Committee system and the scope for debates, questions and petitions, work reasonably well.

The following suggestions for improvement, some of which would need to be incorporated into a new Constitutional Settlement, could be implemented quite easily:

  • Replace the present House of Lords with a Senate, a smaller elected body of professional, non-party people, say 200 rather the current 800.
  • Give the Speaker more powers to properly manage the business, operation and membership of the House of Commons, govern MPs behaviour, deal with offenders, and be responsible for The Ministerial Code, the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner;
  • Redesign the chambers so that seats, voting papers, business management and voting are modernised and the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is removed;
  • Remove all the archaic procedures which reflect a bygone age of fealty, class division, sexism and pseudo-respect;
  • Reform the rules governing MP’s behaviour, in line with modern recruitment, human rights and employment law, and what they can and cannot do in the way of claiming expenses and subsidies, appointing family members, accepting perks and bribes and outside salaries;
  • Reform lobbying, to work more fairly and keep big players in their place.

Prime Ministerial Power and Cabinet Government

Cabinet Government needs to replace the present Prime Ministerial Government, and be incorporated into a new Constitutional Settlement. Cabinet members in charge of Government Departments should have the competence and authority to manage their departments effectively, subject to broad agreements on strategy agreed at Cabinet or within Cabinet sub-committees. This should include all executive functions, policy-making and public announcements, which should not be subject to constant Prime Ministerial oversight and over-reach. Where this is evidently not the case, Secretaries of State or Ministers should be replaced. This is not the case at the moment.

The current Prime Minister has appointed many obviously incapable Ministers, purely because of their loyalty to him and their willingness to utter banalities and sycophantic public statements whenever called on by him. Because of this, he rarely if ever replaces them with more competent people and they never resign. Public confidence evaporates, and democracy suffers.

Cabinet members also need to have the confidence and independence to challenge the Prime Minister and the Government, and this is not the case at the moment. The Prime Minister has too much power over these cabinet appointments, and the way ministers operate, and the current Prime Minister is deploying his control over Government to manage the agenda in support of his Save Big Dog campaign. This is all bad for UK democracy and quality Government and urgently needs to change.

All the Prime Minister’s powers should be examined, and many reformed to remove all opportunity for personal favouritism or party advantage.

Public Appointments

All these immensely influential appointments, such as Chair of the BBC, Chair of OFGEM, should be removed from the party political process and the Prime Minister’s gift. Holders of public offices which are not part of the Government need to be completely independent of Government to do their job properly on behalf of the public. A completely independent and permanent non-party Public Appointments Commission needs to be established to undertake this function, appointing entirely on experience, qualifications, merit, independence and dedication to public service.

For example, a totally independent, trusted and well-funded national broadcaster, the BBC, with a reported regular world-wide audience of 500 million people, is vital for UK democracy. At present the BBC Chairman is recently-appointed Richard Sharp, ex-banker, ex-director of the right wing think tank Centre for Policy Studies, and huge donor to the Conservative Party (reported total donations over £400,000). This was the Prime Minister’s favoured choice after his previous favoured choice, Charles Moore editor of The Daily Telegraph, was forced to withdraw. That is an undemocratic process.

Reform of Voting Systems

The current First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system in use at general elections and local government elections in England confines voters’ voting choices, and acts as a squeeze on minority parties and diverse and minority opinion. There is a sense of wasted votes, which discourages turnout, when the same people and the same parties get voted in time after time, often on a minority of the votes cast.

FPTP voting encourages polarisation of the country, side-lining any kind of collaborative approach which would better serve citizens. Important and publicly-supported issues such as climate change policy are unrepresented or under-represented in Parliament with FPTP. The Green Party has just one MP, albeit a very good one. With FPTP, governments can get elected on a minority of the national vote (as President Trump was in 2016 – and presumably the Tories in each of their elections).

The Electoral Reform Society recommend the Single Transferable Vote system for all UK elections. There is plenty of experience from around the world to show that this works better than the UK’s system. Coalition Governments formed on the basis of a much wider diversity of representation and opinion would improve Governmental decision-making, competence and forward-planning, and have a much wider basis of public acceptance and support.

Political Party Funding and Campaign Funding

As discussed previously, the Tory Party has a huge and unfair electoral advantage in being financed so extravagantly by business and corporate interests and wealthy people. This needs to change, because it is very unfair, and encourages corruption. Money contributed on that scale demands influence and favours in return, from Parties and politicians, and that is unacceptable and undemocratic.

Individual donations should be limited to a maximum of say £100 per year, organisations to say £1,000 per year, and these should only be provided to the Party, not to individuals. No perks of any kind should be offered to or accepted by individual MPs.

In the USA, millions and millions of dollars are spent in a constant round of campaigning, using newspapers, TV and social media. The ads are appalling, often personalised attacks, and often deliberately misleading. They distort and contribute very little to the quality of debate, and stoke the fire of division. Anything like that needs to be banned from UK politics. Party election funding and behaviour should be rigorously capped and enforced by a properly independent, empowered and funded Electoral Commission.  

Redefine How MPs Operate

Most MPs currently give their strongest loyalty to their Party, to the Prime Minister and to their careers, rather than to their constituents or the national interest. Many, possibly most MPs do work conscientiously on behalf of individual constituents and their problems, and in committees and in Parliament to get good legislation. But when push comes to shove, almost all MPs vote on Party lines, whatever they think of the business or the legislation. This is not in the national interest.

One way to rebalance these priorities would be to redefine rules for the whipping system, whereby MPs currently are effectively pressured to vote for the Government or for their Party on pain of being demoted or not promoted or having their constituency suffer in some way. It should not be viewed as a crime or as disloyal for MPs to vote against a policy or legislation with which they disagree. It should not be viewed as a disaster for a Government if a piece of their business is voted down.

Where an MP misbehaves or votes consistently in a manner which displeases large numbers of constituents, there should be a much better system by which MPs can be called to account and recalled. It should not be left just to the party machine to make these decisions.

The Press and Social Media

Freedom of the press and associated media is a vital ingredient for a successful democracy, but the domination of most of the UK press by right-wing press barons and their organisations, based abroad, does not provide that. Regulation of the press is currently carried out by a self-regulation body (IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation). By not being independent, this is useless as a point of principle, and has proved totally ineffective in practice. Press regulation needs to be placed on a fully independent, taxpayer-funded, statutory basis, with strong enforcement powers.

Secondly, the Competition and Markets Authority needs to investigate the press, where it will surely find that the industry breaches the public interest on grounds of monopoly, duopoly or oligopoly. It should then recommend that the industry be broken up. 

The UK should implement the equivalent of the ground-breaking EU Digital Services Act, which seeks to remove online harm and misinformation from social media, enforced as above.

Brexit

The now abundantly clear failure of leaving the EU must be addressed. As well as economic and social failure (‘The true economic cost of Brexit is finally becoming clear’, Tom Clark, Prospect, 12/5/22), Brexit has harmed the Union, damaged the UK’s relations with other countries, and increased the powers available to the UK Government, which harms democracy.

The Liberal Democrat Party is the only major UK Party which has called for the UK to apply to rejoin the Single Market, as a first step towards applying for full membership. None of this can happen immediately, but some steps to repair some of the most flagrant damage from Brexit can be taken now, such as Labour’s Make Brexit Work policy, followed by confidence and trust-building measures which can facilitate such applications.  

Local Government

Local Government is a vital part of the democratic system, yet it has been badly undermined by having to bear the brunt of austerity measures from 2010 on, and by having funds allocated from Whitehall on a short term basis and for pre-specified purposes, thereby limiting freedom of action and democratic accountability.

As part of a new Constitutional Settlement, this dire situation should be reversed, with decision-making devolved to the lowest possible level.

Regulation

‘Light touch regulation’ has been a Tory watchword since Margaret Thatcher famously lit a bonfire under City of London rules. This opened a Pandora’s box of dodgy financial dealing, huge privatisations and sky-high remunerations which ultimately led to the collapse of banks, pension funds and building societies, the credit crunch, the financial crash of 2008, the flood of money for laundering into the City, and the austerity regime of 2010 to the present.

Weak regulations ill-serves the public in many areas beyond finance, such as elections, health and safety, environment, social care, education, business, justice, the press and media, advertising, gambling, the economy, human rights, Government accountability and the law. All the regulatory bodies should be reviewed, made constitutionally independent, funded properly, given sufficient powers to bring offenders to justice, and removed from becoming political footballs.

Privatised Industries

Many of the Thatcher era privatisations have been serious failures, in the quality of their provision of services to businesses and citizens. These industries include Railways, Water and Energy. Government promises made at the time about efficiency, prices and investment have not materialised.

Privatised rail companies are repeatedly bailed out by the Treasury, or taken back into public control, and major investments like The Elizabeth Line, and HS2 are publicly funded. Poor coordination between the rail companies has led to disastrous timetable changes, and huge ticket pricing anomalies. Ticket prices are mostly more expensive than in Europe, depending on ticket type and journey.

Water companies have paid out more in dividends than they have invested in their infrastructure. Vast, law-breaking sewage spills are now a regular occurrence, and the Government has refused to legislate properly against them. Each company acts as a monopoly in its own region, which guarantees risk-free profitability and excludes any competitive incentive to improve. Flood prevention, leak prevention and sewage control investments are inadequate.

Confusion pricing reigns amongst the energy companies, gas storage facilities have been closed, and companies have been going bust during the current energy crisis. Energy price rises during the current crisis are much much higher in the UK than they are in France, where there is a single state-owned supplier, EDF.

The wholesale privatisation of these and other strategic industries has been a massive failure, and the state no longer has ownership or full control, which is a democratic deficit. But wholesale re-nationalisation would be too great a drain on the public purse. A compromise solution needs to be found for each industry whereby existing services continue to be provided by the private companies, but the security, sourcing, quality and pricing of service supply is supervised much more robustly and closely in the national interest by beefed up and empowered regulators answerable to Parliament.

The Constitution, and a New Constitutional Settlement

The UK Constitution is written in various different documents such as leading statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties, and also relies on politicians and institutions behaving respectfully and ‘honourably’. Being uncodified into one document is often described as an advantage, because it enables constitutional changes to be made more easily. But there is some concern, based on recent events and examples, that Governments are able to swerve around, re-interpret or change elements of this form of Constitution too easily, to their own advantage.

There are several pressing Constitutional problems, thrown into sharp relief by Brexit, the Pandemic, and the strong movement towards independence in Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales, which have understandably become very unhappy with their devolution arrangements. In Northern Ireland, the Protocol establishing a trading border between GB and the province, negotiated as part of the Brexit deal, has become a source of grievance for unionists. There are also strong feelings in some English regions that they are poorly served by a Parliament and Government based in London. The UK Parliament is dominated by English MPs. A new Constitutional Settlement is therefore sorely needed to try to overcome some of these problems, to ensure the continuation of a fruitful and fairer Union, to repair and strengthen UK democracy, and make swerving around it for short term political advantage more difficult.

Parliament made an attempt from 2010 to 2015 to look at “the path to possible codification of the United Kingdom’s constitution”. The Government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, committed to in the Conservative Party Manifesto at the 2019 Election, has not started yet.

For Labour, Gordon Brown has made the case for replacing the unelected House of Lords with a more democratic senate of the UK’s regions and nations. The former Labour Prime Minister said there was a need for a “constitutional revolution”. Labour included a commitment to replacing the Lords with an elected upper chamber in its 2019, 2017, 2015 and 2010 election manifestos.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer announced in December 2020 that Labour will launch a UK-wide constitutional commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level:

“This will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation and every bit as bold and radical as the programme of devolution that Labour delivered in the 1990s and 2000s. It will consider all parts of the UK and it will focus on delivering real – and lasting – economic and political devolution across our towns, our communities and to people across the country.”

In Conclusion

At the present time in the UK, poverty is rising, inequality is rising, and the rich are getting richer.

The accumulation of wealth at the one pole of society involves at the same time an accumulation of misery, or the agony of toil, of slavery, ignorance, brutalization and of moral degradation, at the opposite pole.  

(Karl Marx, Capital, quoted in Karl Popper, The Open Society, Vol 2)

Laissez-faire capitalism is gone. Democratic interventionism has made immense advances since Marx’s day. This shows that much has been achieved, and it should encourage us to believe that more can be done. For much remains to be done. Democratic interventionism can only make it possible. It rests with us to do it.

(Popper, The Open Society, Vol 2)

Andrew Marr (New Statesman 9/4/22) says Labour needs a big idea. In fact the Labour Party, probably in consultation with other opposition parties, needs to recognise how severely UK democracy and the quality of UK Government has been undermined and degraded in recent years and decades, and that the majority of UK citizens are being badly failed as a result. So Labour needs to prepare a massive and very ambitious programme of democratic strengthening, democratic reform and democratic transformation, to modernise and update UK democracy and systems of government. This would be a programme for two or three Parliaments, to improve governance and make the UK a better place for all citizens. 

Until recently we had an unprincipled, self-serving Prime Minister, a fawning, incompetent cabinet, an unrepresentative, rubber-stamping Parliament, a failing Union, a rapidly falling international reputation, an untrusted, disliked Government passing undemocratic legislation and supported only by a minority of voters and propped up by a mainly oligarchy-owned press, and a dis-functional Parliamentary and democratic system incapable of enabling change to any of that. This is all failing the bulk of the population.

What we need is the opposite of all that. And it is doubtful that any of the contenders for leadership of the Tory Party will deliver on this and the renewal of UK democracy.  


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