In what ways and to what extent, if at all, would you wish to claim that Britain is a democratic society?

Tarquin Finland

The concept of democracy is difficult to describe, the legislative, political, economic processes and the rights of the individual of each country that we think of as  democratic vary so much.Therefore the concept is subjective; that a personal view of injustice or political maladministration for example, might have been reached by looking at other countries and their electoral, judicial or social systems that one person might see as preferable. It may also extend to some personal involvement with the police, redress in the courts or perception of restriction of personal behaviour.With this personal subjective bias in mind, this essay will approach somewhat simplistically our electoral system as the central theme for discussion.

The UK’s current “first past the post” electoral system in operation could be seen as a method that is entirely undemocratic. The vagaries of boundary changes, and a disproportional number of Members of Parliament from certain areas are just two of the possible criticisms. More importantly, is the feeling that one’s vote is automatically discounted after the local result is announced. No regard is taken of  the proportion of the electorate voting, the total percentage of votes won by the candidates or the votes cast for the losing parties. 

Locally, Plymouth itself gives a fine example of some of the above issues. The 1983 Boundary Commission changes left David Owen representing a majority of constituents that had not voted for him, and saw his constituency change to that of one of a majority of tenants in council-owned properties. At the same time the Conservatives marginal seat in Plymouth, Drake, was transformed into a safer, more middle class voting area. The third seat, Sutton, was also reinforced with more owner occupiers.

It could appear that boundary changes were decided by housing tenure, and therefore the occupants probable social class and consequent likely voting patterns. This was just after DR Owen had left the Labour Party to form the Social Democrats, still sitting in the House of Commons, but for a party to which he was not elected! At the time of the formation of the new party, there were over twenty similar members taking their place in Parliament. There is currently at least one Member of Parliament that has “crossed the floor” and continues to represent his constituents despite their outrage that he votes weekly against legislative issues of their chosen party. 

Along with the criticism of votes “wasted” in an area with a huge majority is the practice of “tactical” voting. That you do not vote for the party of your choice, but simply to stop the party you do not want to win. Are these examples of democracy?
There are several proposed constitutional changes in our electoral system which could be introduced after the next election, but may only come about in the case of a “hung” parliament. Where a government has only a small majority or may even be in the minority, a lesser party can literally control legislation, or gaining concessions as the price of their votes.

 This is currently happening with our present Government’s dependence on Irish members of Parliament on key issues, merely to postpone the election to a more suitable time. The same may even happen on the issue of constitutional or electoral change, again a case of the minority controlling the majority. This strikes me as ironic.

The idea of proportional representation appears the most logical solution to electoral reform. The number of seats are simply awarded in proportion to votes cast; variations upon which might be:

  • Additional Member System - The current German method where votes are cast for the national party in addition to a local representative. From this second vote a number of extra seats are decided by  proportion.
  • Alternative Vote System - Not strictly PR, but where a voter has to list the candidates in order of preference. A complicated system of discarding the least chosen candidate and using those votes through rankings if no one candidate attains 50% of the total vote.
  • Single Transferable Vote System - Voters again list the candidates in order of preference, but if not enough seats are won outright, the second and third preferences are taken into account. This operates in larger constituencies, usually with more than one representative.
Four successive Conservative election majorities have never received more than 44% of the total votes.

 Proportional representation must be a method therefore of increasing not only democracy, but as importantly the awareness and political involvement of the electorate. At present nearly 25 % of all eligible voters do not take part. (Source: The Constitution Unit - Appendix 1) The reason most often given that it is perceived as pointless under the present system. 
Surely one of the first basic rights of the individual, in a democracy, is that of involvement in an electoral system. 

Even the choice of date of our next election may represent a particularly cynical political decision. It has been said that the first week in May would suit our present government, as traditionally, better weather usually equates to happier voters, and it is when one million students will be on holiday, away from their normal residence and less likely to vote. 

If proportional representation is the first requirement of constitutional change, what of the parliamentary process itself? The idea of a second chamber, such as our House of Lords to ratify parliamentary decisions is no doubt honourable. However, the government under the present system has considerable power to force through legislation despite public outcry or the involvement of the opposition.

The Government has several options to push through unpopular, or even unwise, laws virtually without debate. Controlling the timetable for debates with the ability to stop debate with “guillotine” motions or use the Royal prerogative to take decisions. The second house has little power other than to influence and amend legislation, but also has a sitting majority of Conservative hereditary peers. This farce was shown by the sudden appearance of Tory peers, some of whom had not visited the house for years, to support the Poll Tax Bill, the Asylum and Immigration Bill and any amount of controversial legislation when required. 
This cannot be a democratic process, the House of Lords proposing amendments, returning a bill to the House of Commons, only for “backwoodsmen” appear to defeat an already debated issue. A fully elected second chamber, similar to the American system must be both a restraint and balance and therefore more democratic. 

What of the politicians themselves, do they actually represent the people who voted for them initially? Some may argue that their only function is that of heads to be counted at parliamentary voting. The following of the party line is a sad reflection of the lack of democracy even within the one place that expouses, and is said to represent it. A politician it would appear, has little or no individual autonomy; the threat of deselection or removal of the party whip enough to keep the majority in line despite a local interest in the issues. Another factor may be the financial gain available to a politician, directorships, secretarial allowances and other benefits often trebling the current £43,000 salary. This salary is even disputed in that little must be disclosed on outside interests, and they vote on their own pay awards, recently receiving a 35% rise when inflation is 2% and public sector awards are linked to that. The role of select committees to enforce accountability is the governments reply to these criticisms but self interest, political intrigue and personal gain must influence decisions. Perhaps full-time politicians with no outside interests may be the answer as there is also often a more prosperous career outside government. “Sleaze”, “cash for questions” and general mistrust in our politicians behaviour both publicly and privately all appear to reduce the democratic perception of our system. This is not helped by the thought that tax cutting is a instant vote, winner despite the resulting  lack of public services, especially health care. 

Political expediency could be seen as devaluing the responsibilities of government.

These possible criticisms are looked at differently by all political parties. This is one of the major worries of our system, the automatic gainsay on any issue.

Constitutional change, particularly the election process appears overdue and there are other issues linked to this to increase democracy. Alongside the reform of the House of Lords and parliamentary procedure discussed, are the issues of devolution for the UK countries, a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act.

European legislation may in time bring some of these changes.

It is therefore interesting to look at the possible composition of our government (n terms of seats in the House of Commons) under the three other systems I suggested.

(Published in the Guardian January 14, 1997)

Table 1 clearly shows the “balance of power” with the Liberal Democrats, a coalition government inevitable. This is the normal situation in most European countries and would I feel lead to a less radical and more balanced decision making apparatus.

In conclusion, much of the newer political and economic ethos of the “free market” and more individualistic attitudes, could be said to be more democratic. That we are encouraged to take more charge of our lives and decisions.
Many of the factors that we take for granted, the right of free speech and the freedom of the press are also good measures of democracy. Another might be the accessability of redress in the courts, this could be seen as a problem with the cost of litigation and the availability of legal aid.

Also, opponents of the government could point to the recent Criminal Justice Act as a loss of the right of assembly. Also to the proposed legislation to remove the right to trial by jury in lesser criminal cases, all examples as a lessening of the rights of the individual. In the case of newspapers and television, both of which are important in forming public opinion, the policy that has led to a very small number of individuals owning all the media resources cannot be a good thing.

The electoral system that I have used as a main example shows itself to be behind the times, ready for change, a decision that possibly rests on the interests of politicians rather than the electorate. This I feel, is the true measure of our democracy, we have many of the accepted rights expected in a “civilized” country, but often at the whim of political expediency. To another, all is well.

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