Guest Blog – Repairing A Broken Democracy

November 17, 2021

Dave Knaggs, Penrith and The Border Labour Party, writing in a personal capacity, explores the “Democratic Deficit” and argues that instead of focusing energy on PR we should look to the reforms set out in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos.

The vast majority of discussions appraising the problems with the UK’s democracy tend to focus on reforming the voting system with much less attention afforded to the more significant flaws that fundamentally undermine the processes of democracy and governmental accountability.

If we are to address the frailties of our democracy, we must focus on reducing the current democratic deficit, encouraging voter participation, increasing the accountability of our elected representatives and reducing the impact of anti-democratic structures and processes. Socialists must not be distracted from a meaningful transformational agenda that will bring real improvements to our system of democracy. 

The Democratic Deficit is Within the System

The often discussed democratic deficit is within the system, not the people. Our current system of ‘democracy’ provides a newly elected government with a mandate to do whatever they wish for a fixed period of 5 years until the next General Election. During this period there is no requirement to make any further reference to the electorate, nor is there any formal process of public accountability or challenge. 

In the meantime, as we have seen, a government is able to appoint unelected officials into key government jobs, promote their failed election candidates to the unelected House of Lords, abandon all election commitments, break international and UK laws, mislead the monarch, illegally prorogue parliament, politicise the civil service, diminish the judiciary and impose new electoral boundaries that favour their electoral fortunes.  Under the leadership of Johnson we are currently burdened with a dystopian autocracy that has further damaged parliamentary integrity.

Electoral reform is often misleadingly mis-sold as a way of addressing the democratic deficit.  However, the reality is that the failure of large chunks of the electorate to engage is substantially because many politicians are perceived to have lost their sense of honesty and integrity. Now more than ever before! 

There has been cash for questions, sex(ism), racism and misogyny scandals, the expenses scandal, election expenses frauds, broken promise after broken promise, crony contracts, payments for lobbying, peerages for donations, outright lies, bullying and the dishonest use of doctored figures and statistics. Even election manifesto pledges are abandoned before the ink has dried on the ballot paper!  And we now have a Prime Minister who lies almost every time he moves his lips whilst cheerfully limboing way below the generally acceptable standards expected of those in public office. 

Trust in UK democracy has been further damaged by the dominance of the career politician doggedly seeking to align with ‘electable’ policies and, in doing so, unashamedly jettisoning the values and beliefs on which their party was founded. It frequently seems that no compromise is too great if it helps to hold on to the parliamentary salary for a few more years. With only a small number of exceptions, it has again become increasingly difficult to discern between the politicians of different parties. Labour leaders have frequently been woefully remiss in abandoning socialist values.

Was it Labour values that prompted Harriet Harman, as interim leader in 2015, to announce, “Labour will not vote against the governments welfare bill and should not oppose limiting child tax credits to two children”?

Was it Labour values that prompted Tony Blair to exorcise the soul of the party in removing Clause IV, rebadging the party as New Labour and enthusiastically continuing with Thatcher’s neoliberal economics? Is it any wonder that Thatcher described Blair’s New Labour as her greatest achievement? 

Was it Labour values that inspired Keir Starmer to instruct Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill, which will make it far harder to prosecute war crimes, and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill that will allow undercover informants working for the police and MI5 to commit crimes?

The Labour Party, under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn, made progress in addressing voter disenchantment with a policy proposition that was very different from the other parties. He put forward a distinct set of policies which were unmistakably based on a clear set of values, principles and beliefs. This approach began to rouse the interest of the electorate who, through him, saw that not all politicians are either corrupt, duplicitous or money-grabbing careerists. The Labour Party membership subsequently surged to become the biggest of any in the whole of Europe. This was not about a new voting system but a new way of ‘doing politics’. 

The huge advantage bestowed upon the Tory Party by neoliberal capitalists through lavish funding donations is even more disruptive of democracy. Then there’s the support of a biased mainstream media  whose enormous ‘cost free’ promotional benefits aren’t, unfortunately, counted against election expenses — which means that Rupert Murdoch’s support is, literally, priceless.

Events across Merseyside at the 2019 General Election offer an insight into what happens when a toxifying media is shunned by the electorate: fourteen Labour MPs either retained their seats or regained them from ex-Labour defectors. The substantial difference in Merseyside is the very effective campaign for a ‘total eclipse of The Sun’ newspaper because of the despicable reporting at the time of the Hillsborough disaster. This regional distrust of the right wing media meant that it has little impact on the local electorate’s perspectives. This explains Dan Carden winning 84.7% of the votes, Sir George Howarth winning 80.8% and former Labour MP Frank Field, who ran as an Independent, being trounced by Labour’s Mick Whitley who secured a 17,705 majority. 

Imagine what the outcome of the 2017 and 2019 General Elections could have looked like if the whole electorate had been shielded from the influence of the right wing press.

When the controlling media capitalists don’t like a party or a politician, they have the power and funds to eliminate their good standing. Sadly, Jeremy Corbyn was relentlessly and remorselessly criticised, demonised, vilified, smeared and slandered by a billionaire press and media that fearlessly misled the public with flagrant lies and distortions. The rich and powerful cynically bombarded us with their destructive propaganda, wilfully undermining our democracy without a morsel of fear of being held to account. 

It’s not only the billionaire’s press that is geared to undermining the free choice of the electorate. Though democracy is presented as the ‘rule of the people’, within capitalist economies, democracy is powered by the ‘rule of the market’. 

The bankers have such enormous influence over the economy that they, by default, dictate the key policies of Governments. Capitalist ‘democracy’ merely creates the illusion of fairness. Public opinion and electoral decision-making is overwhelmed by the capitalist media and money markets.

In contrast to our five-yearly vote, capital is able to respond to government policy very speedily by withdrawing its approval. The massively imbalanced power of capital is able to control employment levels, withdraw investment, shift interest rates, direct inflation and influence the value of the currency.

We must ask ourselves why popular policies strongly supported by the electorate are rarely delivered. Why has no Government ever seriously tackled tax avoidance and tax evasion? Why are there never appropriate taxation levels for the most wealthy when the rest of us are subject to austerity measures? Who amongst us wanted our NHS carved up and sold off to free market profiteers or our schools handed over to asset stripping Academy companies? Who was in favour of Johnson’s government squandering a £37 billion budget on private, unaccountable crony contracts awarded without a whiff of competitive tendering?

It is surely no surprise that the electorate has become increasingly cynical, disengaged and apathetic as a consequence of a ridiculously uneven functioning of democracy.

There are clearly a whole range of factors that have injured our faith in politics and diminished our democracy. Unless we address a few fundamental issues it will be impossible for the working people to make informed choices free from misinformation, lies and the overbearing influence of the rich and powerful.  The democratic deficit is within the system, not the people. This is not Democracy!

Proportional Representation is Not the Answer

It is puzzling why so many on the left have become focused on electoral reform. An alternative perspective held by a growing number of socialists is that electoral refinements are a diversion from much more significant reforms. The arguments supporting PR are both exaggerated and  spurious.

It is often argued that within PR, every vote counts. However, at the 1992 General Election the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote, Labour 35.2%, and the Liberal Democrats 18.3%. If the number of seats in Westminster had reflected the national vote using a proportionate allocation of seats, the Conservatives would have won 271 seats, Labour 223, the Liberal Democrats 116 and 41 seats to the smaller ‘others’.

As no party would have managed to win the 326 seats necessary to form a majority government, the most likely outcome would have been for the Tories to enter into an electoral pact with the LibDems. The ‘largest’ party would have been unable to enact any legislation without making deals with the smaller LibDems which would have meant that the LibDems, with a much smaller popular vote, could wield a level of power disproportionate to its vote.

Within this scenario, the 35.2% votes cast for Labour would be meaningless. How can this possibly be regarded as more democratic or fairer? Supporters of PR often make the mistake of failing to differentiate between Parliament and Government; only those parliamentarians who become part of the Government have any real power. Parliament could be proportionate to the vote but this can never, and will never, be the case for Government.

And anyway, the reality is that the British public has little interest in electoral reform. Indeed, most of those who push for reform do so because they believe it will bring political advantage to their party. The UK referendum vote in 2011, on the Alternative Vote proposal, was rejected by 67.9% of voters with a national turnout of 42%. Therefore, it can only be assumed that electoral reform is not something that excites the public.

The voter turnout statistics in countries using proportional representation provide no evidence of PR increasing voter participation. At the 2020 elections in Ireland there was a 62.7% turnout and in 2019 South Africa a 46.7% turnout whilst the UK, with First Past The Post, had a 67.3% turnout at the 2019 election. Even when the Labour Party undemocratically adopted the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in a shallow attempt to favour a centrist outcome for elections to the National Executive Committee (NEC) in November 2020, there was a turnout of only 27%. 

There’s also an unquestionable danger that the introduction of a more complicated system of voting would disenfranchise even more of the electorate. For example, STV voting breakdown for Labour’s most recent NEC elections ran to 12 pages and 37 rounds! How can something so impossibly complex be in any way regarded as democratic?  

Another issue is the way that most PR systems work means that local representatives become distant and, consequently, less accountable whereas the current system provides a clear link between constituents and their representatives in Parliament. Under PR, electoral constituencies would have to be much bigger in order to have multiple seats to fill proportionately, leading to local issues being overlooked. There is an inherent inability of the voter to enforce accountability by ejecting a party from power, or a particular candidate from office.

If that’s not enough, there’s much more to fear from the unintended consequences of reform. PR systems have a tendency to give rise to fragmented coalition governments which leads to legislative gridlock and incoherent policies that emerge from a range of disparate viewpoints. 

Small parties wield huge power frequently holding larger parties to ransom in coalition negotiations. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wielded a disproportionate influence over the last legislative programme of Theresa May’s government with a larger share of the power than their vote warranted. 

PR has demonstrated that it could lead to an endless hung parliament with majority governments becoming the exception. This means that fewer voters have their wishes transferred into legislation because all parties may be locked into constant negotiation and compromise. Coalitions and minority governments result in a watered down centre-ground that doesn’t fully represent anybody’s views. 

Labour members must ask themselves, why would the left wish to collude and collaborate with  neoliberals and, if they did, would we be able to negotiate anything approaching ‘socialism’? Is the left happy to achieve little more than an amelioration of the excesses of free market capitalism? The PR system will almost always benefit the neoliberal centrists.

Ruling parties in a coalition often have slim majorities and, consequently, tend to have a precarious hold on governmental power. We surely do not want a confused system like Italy’s where their governance has been so unstable that they have had 66 governments since 1945.

Sometimes it isn’t possible for coalition deals to be made. Belgium, an example of this, was recently left without government for nearly two years.

It is these factors that illustrate the reasons why some of the largest democracies, including the UK, the US, India and Canada, have elections that are decided by plurality voting systems.

Worst of all, PR can lead to a legitimised platform to small extremist parties that become part of the political mainstream. Though some argue that the best way to counter extremist groups is to allow their ideas to be discussed, confronted and defeated in democratic debate, there are dangers in bringing extremist views into the mainstream. Do we want a system that can produce such profound instability? Do we really want to allow ‘hate speeches’ made on legitimised platforms?

Until we can think of something actually better than what we have, let’s not opt to unwittingly assemble the magnolia landscapes of political bland land by supporting electoral reforms that are little more than a sleight of hand to create the illusion of greater democracy whilst securing a permanent centrist legislature. 

Socialist Priorities for Democratic Reform

Instead of focusing energies on the much misunderstood and over-rated value of electoral reform, the Labour Party identified several significant problems with our democracy and proposed practical and workable solutions to fix democratic failings.

The 2017 Labour Manifesto

  • The devolution of power from over-centralised government to the regions with the option of a more federalised country 
  • An end to the hereditary principle
  • Establishment of a democratically elected Second Chamber
  • An extension to the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services
  • A reduction of the voting age to 16 years
  • A repeal of the Lobbying Act, which has gagged charities, and introduce a tougher statutory register of lobbyists. The Lobbying Act introduced restrictions to what companies and non-governmental organisations can say in the 12 months leading up to a general election whilst leaving the door open for dodgy David Cameron to exploit his influence to look after Greensill.

Then in 2019 the Party manifesto added further measures to the 2017 proposals.

The 2019 Labour Manifesto

  • Repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifles democracy and props up weak governments
  • Maintain 650 constituencies and respond objectively to future, independent boundary reviews
  • Abandon plans to introduce voter ID which has been shown to harm democratic rights
  • Change how politics is funded, banning donations from tax avoiders and tax evaders, and closing loopholes that allow the use of shell companies to funnel dark money into politics
  • Introduce a lobbying register covering both in-house lobbyists and think tanks and extending to contacts made with all senior government employees, not just ministers
  • Stop MPs from taking paid second jobs
  • Overhaul the system of ministerial appointments to public office
  • Initiate a national review of local media and into the ownership of national media to ensure plurality.

Finally, although it isn’t dealt with within the manifesto commitments, possibly the biggest attack on democracy is the Tory Party’s privatisation agenda which is a blatant strategy to shift our services away from democratic control and accountability into the private hands of the rich, powerful and unaccountable. The private control, management and organisation of our services and institutions is a planned, anti-democratic outcome of a capitalist approach. So, the inevitable conclusion must be that renationalisation has to be a priority.

We must bring utility and energy companies (gas, electricity, water, nuclear) and telecommunications, mail services, broadband and transport back into public ownership to ensure democratic control and public accountability. Perhaps most crucially, we must end the privatisation and outsourcing of our health and social care services. Over the last year alone the Tories squandered a £37 million budget on private crony contracts that completely failed to deliver an effective test, trace and track system — there was no process of accountability or punitive measures to deal with the failure to deliver. Crucially, where public services are run by private companies, we must extend the Freedom Of Information Act to cover their activities so that some degree of accountability can be achieved.

If we want unstable, centrist, neoliberal governments, PR is the way to go. If not, we must get on with fighting for worthwhile reforms and  rigorously oppose the attacks on FPTP in our struggle for democratic socialism.

A previous version of the article appeared in the Left Horizons newsletter and on their website in April 2021