Until the 1980s, Britain was one of the most egalitarian of the industrialised nations, with a welfare state that enjoyed the support of all three major political parties. But the deep divide in the Labour Party between Social Democrats and Marxists opened the way for a silent coup d’etat by admirers of trans-Atlantic capitalism, who captured first the Conservative Party and then “New Labour” with a vision of progress focused on privatisation and the transfer of decision-taking formerly dispersed through society in local authorities, co-operatives and schools into the hands of private managers who answer to the state.
The agenda of successive rounds of cuts in public services, which built on this neo-conservative vision, was never espoused by the public and was only possible because of the fossilisation of our electoral system. First-past-the-post voting with a plurality of parties means that almost all UK governments are elected against the wishes of a majority of the voters. Indeed, with low turnout, one party could control Parliament with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. As a result, the two main parties obstinately resist meaningful reform and concentrate on policies which enthuse party conferences, donors and a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats, largely ignoring the rest of the electorate.
The growing divorce between the political establishment and the public at large reflects the long-term decline in party membership, which dropped by 66% between 1980 and 2009. This made the parties even more dependent on donations from wealthy organisations and individuals, which grew from £44 million before the 2005 election to £100 million in 2017. At the same time, the growth of social media has opened up new sources of information for ordinary electors but has also vastly increased the opportunities for well-funded lobbyists to manipulate the political process.
The fossilisation of our electoral system has impeded reform and the more perverse the results, the greater the vested interest MPs have in resisting change. Turnout in elections has declined sharply over the past half-century and, after the US, the UK now has the lowest level of any major democracy. In parts of Western Europe, up to 88% of the electorate use their right to vote but in Britain, this figure fell to 59% in 2001 and was only 69% in June 2017. Most of the 31% of those on the register who failed to vote were among the poor, the young and those who depend most on public services for their health and welfare.
It is no coincidence that the two largest democracies with first-past-the-post voting, the UK and the US, also have the lowest turnout in elections and the most unequal distribution of wealth. Sound research has demonstrated a clear correlation between proportional voting and greater equality; wealth follows power. This must be the starting point for a radical agenda to tackle disadvantage and create the foundations for a society of opportunity for all.
For most of the 150 years following the Great Reform Bill of 1832, with two national parties and regional parties with supporters concentrated in a few constituencies, the number of seats won by each party broadly reflected the votes cast, with each winning roughly one seat in Parliament for every 30-40,000 votes it received.
But in recent elections, with up to five parties with over a million supporters, this balance has broken down. We claim to live in a democracy, but the Conservative Party won the 2015 election outright with less than 37% of the votes cast. In Scotland, 50% of voters voted SNP but elected 95% of the MPs. Even after tactical voting had eroded their support at the ballot box, the three largest minor parties polled 24.3% of the votes in 2015, but won only 1.5% of the seats in Parliament. In the 2017 General Election, the Conservative and Labour Parties between them polled 85% of the votes but won 97% of the seats, with the Conservative Party winning 49% of the seats with 42% of the vote.
The Radical Party Proposes:
- Every Vote Counts Electoral Reform
- Robust Electoral Law
- Good Governance in Parliament
- A Reformed Upper Chamber
- Evidence-Based Policy Making
Every Vote Counts Electoral Reform
A fresh mobilisation is needed in British politics to break the logjam and restore power to the electorate – but electoral reform has been pushed off the political agenda. One reason for this is that the public rejected a system of proportional voting in a referendum in May 2011. However, this was not on the principle of fair voting, but simply offered the Alternative Vote (AV), a complicated system which resulted from horse-trading between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party managers. It involved abandoning cherished features of our democracy and could have been even more unfair than first-past-the-post. Indeed, the Electoral Reform Society determined that, had the 2015 election been conducted on the basis of AV, the Conservative Party would have ended up with an even larger majority.
The principal reason why reform has been kicked into the long grass is that the main parties know that fair voting would mean winning fewer seats and prevent them from adopting the polarised policies their activists and financial backers demand. And MPs elected with as few as 24% of the votes cast in some of our latter-day rotten boroughs have good reason to fear reform: 27 of the 56 SNP MPs elected in 2015 would not have been in Parliament had the election been conducted on a fair voting system.
But the fact that a Westminster cabal is opposed to fair voting is not a reason for concerned citizens not to demand it. For all the radical reforms which laid the foundations for our modern democracy were fiercely opposed by the political establishment. Citizen power may work slowly but history shows that, in a democratic society, a determined campaign for long-overdue reform becomes irresistible.
Six Principles for Fair Voting
The Radical Party’s proposals for reform are based on six principles:
- the number of MPs elected for each party should reflect the votes cast for the party concerned: as far as possible, every vote should count;
- the system must allow electors to show which candidate they really want to win without wasting their votes;
- no candidate should be deemed elected until he or she has received the support of 50% of the votes cast;
- the system should allow popular independents and representatives of local action groups to be elected if they are supported by a majority in their constituencies;
- it should not involve party lists with the cronyism and patronage they bring – candidates should be selected by local people in the constituencies where they stand;
- and, it should protect against extreme fragmentation, which could give tiny parties with wealthy backers disproportionate influence.
Respecting these principles, the Party proposes that:
- any candidate receiving over 50% of the votes in a constituency be elected forthwith;
- in all other constituencies, a run-off ballot be held between the candidates who come first and second;
- the number of MPs representing parties under-represented following the first and second ballots, be topped up to reflect the distribution of votes cast in the first ballot, with the candidates who performed best in their constituencies being deemed elected;
- the top up candidates serve as MPs alongside the winning candidate in their own constituencies;
- to prevent a proliferation of small parties, a threshold be established below which a party would not be entitled to any MPs (apart from any candidates receiving more than 50% of the votes in their own constituencies);
- by-elections where no candidate received 50% of the votes cast in the first ballot, would be determined by a run-off ballot, as in a general election.
This system would require the total number of MPs (but not constituencies) to vary somewhat from one Parliament to the next. This would reflect accepted practice in that multi-member constituencies already exist in local authorities, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont and existed in some Parliamentary seats in England until the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, the total number of MPs has changed on numerous occasions over the years.
With one MP for every 96,000 residents, compared with 154,000 in Australia, 188,000 in France, 129,000 in Germany, 227,000 in Japan, and 722,000 in the United States, the UK has the highest number of MPs in relation to its population of any major democracy. Besides wasting resources, this contributes to the low esteem in which the House of Commons is now held and encourages MPs to take on other work, fuelling conflicts of interest.
Under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act of 2013, a review is underway with a brief to reduce the number of constituencies to 600 which, if enacted, would still leave the UK substantially over-represented. To strengthen and raise the prestige of Parliament, the Party proposes that the total number of constituencies be reduced progressively through future Boundary Commission reviews to 500.
The current differences between constituencies in terms of the number of electors makes a nonsense of one person one vote, with the largest, the Isle of Wight, having 110,697 in 2017, and the smallest, Na h-Eieanan, just 21,769. This hotchpotch reflects party lobbying and the fact that the Commission takes account of geographical and demographic criteria dating from a time when transport and communications were poorly developed. The Party considers that it cannot be right for electors in one area to have five times as much influence as in another and calls for the Commission to be given an over-riding responsibility to equalise the number of voters in each constituency as far as is practicably possible.
Robust Electoral Law
The Party considers that the maximum parliamentary term should be reduced from five to four years to increase accountability to the electorate and bring the UK into line with international best practice. It strongly supports reducing the voting age from 18 to 16, a measure which would enrich democracy and encourage young people to engage with civil society at a formative time of life.
The funding of elections is controlled by regulations enforced by the Electoral Commission and the courts. Tight limits apply to spending on promoting individual candidates, with the ceiling in the region of £15,000 per parliamentary constituency (except in by-elections when the limit is an astonishing £100,000). The Party proposes that the current limit on spending in support of particular candidates in general elections be retained and extended to cover by-elections.
But a glance at billboards and headlines at election time makes clear that current regulations amount to locking the cat flap while the back door stands open. While imposing tight limits on promoting particular candidates, they also allow up to £19.5 million (if a party were to contest all 650 constituencies) to be spent on national campaigning. This hugely boosts the influence of donors and encourages party managers to find ways to manipulate the system by shipping teams of workers into marginal constituencies. To tackle this abuse, the Party considers that national spending should be limited to £5,000 per constituency contested.
Good Governance in Parliament
In 2008 and after, the House of Commons was mired by a succession of scandals involving conflicts of interest, falsified expenses and tax fiddles. A few of those involved were held to account but some were simply allowed to lie low for a period and then return to prominent positions. As a result, surveys indicate that politicians are now less trusted than any other profession. Following public outrage, oversight was strengthened by the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Scrutiny Authority in 2009 and new rules governing expenses were introduced through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010. These steps have improved transparency and led to a reduction in media coverage of MPs’ expenses.
A further cause for concern is paid insider lobbying – something which would be wholly unacceptable in any normal job. MPs are, doubtless, ethically neither better nor worse than anyone else and since the expenses scandal, the main issue has not been failure to enforce the existing system but that the rules they have agreed for themselves are so lax as to permit behaviour which most members of the public reasonably consider to be outrageous.
They find it hard to see how Members who earn tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds a year acting as lobbyists or as hired guns for newspaper magnates can really be working whole-heartedly on their behalf. The Government regularly condemns corruption and poor governance in other parts of the world. It should not be too much to expect our own parliamentarians to observe standards at least as high as those which apply for employees of all public authorities and properly run listed companies.
Pay for MPs was one of the demands of the early Radicals and it remains essential that it is sufficient to permit candidates without private wealth to be elected without suffering a critical drop in earnings or yielding to the temptation to peddle influence. The Party considers that salaries should be increased from the current level of £74,000 to the average earned by GP partners (currently around £100,000 a year). This will ensure that people from all walks of life can stand for Parliament and will provide a strong basis for requiring that MPs treat their employment as a full-time commitment.
The Party proposes that it be made a criminal offence for an MP to accept payment to represent outside interests. MPs should be required to donate any outside earnings from sources relevant to parliamentary business, such as journalism and television appearances, to charity. The rules covering gifts from interested parties should be revised to meet the standards required of civil servants and employees of ethically run companies; replacing the requirement that gifts worth over £300 be declared by a straightforward prohibition on any treating or gifts. All lobbying of ministers and senior civil servants should be subject to legally enforceable transparency, disclosure and publicly accessible record keeping. Effective procedures should also be developed to prevent recent ex-MPs from seeking to influence ministers or civil servants on behalf of clients during an appropriate quarantine period.
A Reformed Upper Chamber
In many respects, the House of Lords carries out its relatively modest duties well. It draws on impressive expertise in reviewing draft legislation and plays a healthy role in occasionally forcing the Government to think again, so challenging the whipped dictatorship of the majority in the Commons. And, on occasion, it provides for talented people from outside professional politics to be brought in as ministers accountable to Parliament.
But it is also an affront to democracy. For most of its recent history, it has had a permanent Conservative majority bolstered by a self-perpetuating core of predominantly very wealthy hereditary peers. It is wholly unrepresentative of the population at large in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, income and social origins. In its present form, it discredits Parliament and is incompatible with the message we promote around the world in favour of meaningful democracy.
Don’t Make Things Worse!
The situation cries out for reform, but what’s to be done? The solution advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats of an elected second chamber only makes sense if one believes a parliamentary system with 1,400 elected members would be more accountable than one with 600. While providing a fresh tier of patronage for party managers, the profile of candidates would be identical to those for the Commons, but generally of poorer quality. It is hard to imagine that experienced and independent-minded people would expose themselves to the rough and tumble of an election for a chance to join such a body.
Moreover, history suggests that, whatever safeguards were imagined, elected members would seek by every means to extend their powers, raising the spectre of the horse-trading, closet deals and periodic deadlock, which bedevil countries with powerful elected second chambers, such as the United States.
The Radical Party rejects the view that the only alternative to doing nothing is doing something that is clearly foolish. It believes that it is possible to create a system which retains the good features of the current House of Lords and does not undermine the authority of the Commons. The solution to the dilemma lies in accepting that the roles of the Commons and the second chamber are, and should remain, different: the Commons embodies the principle of democracy; it proposes new laws based on a programme endorsed by the electorate, and eventually decides – but only after submitting them to an independent second chamber for detailed review.
A Credible Plan for Reform
The solution lies in accepting that, in democratic terms, the UK has always had a unicameral system. It is not unusual in this: in fact, a number of models of democratic good practice, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, perform very well with a single chamber. The answer then to the challenge of how to build on the good features of the current of the Lords without undermining the Commons is to abandon the objective of turning it into a dilute version of the elected chamber.
Instead, it should become democratic in the sense that any citizen can seek appointment to it and that its members are representative of the population as a whole – not in terms of party allegiance (reflected in a Commons elected through a proportional voting system), but in terms of factors such as ethnicity, gender, income and locality.
The Party proposes that the link between honours and membership of the second chamber and the topping up of hereditary peers and bishops on death or retirement be ended forthwith. Less active peers should be required to retire to reduce the total, step by step, from the present figure of around 800 to 400. After a transition period, the voting membership of the second chamber should be made up entirely of people with experience and expertise relevant to the chamber’s functions, selected from a pool of nominees by a politically neutral commission. This should have a clear mandate from Parliament to ensure that appointments reflect the gender, ethnic, income, geographic and other characteristics of the population at large, with women taking 50% of the seats.
Under the proposed system, any citizen who had voted in the previous election would be eligible to be nominated for possible appointment to the second chamber, provided the nomination was seconded by an agreed number of registered electors. Tenure would be for a ten-year term for all new appointments, and for existing members for five years from the date of the introduction of the reform (and up to a total of ten years for peers appointed in the previous ten years).
Democracies with second chambers employ a range of different ways of selecting their members, each of which has its own drawbacks. The proposed system would produce a second chamber which reflects the makeup of the electorate, is complementary to, and not in competition with, the Commons, and which draws both on high levels of knowledge and expertise and the experience of life of the public at large. As such it would avoid the serious problems raised by an elected second house, be effective within the parameters of its legitimate role, and be democratic in a way the present House of Lords can never be.
Evidence-Based Policy Making
British governments have had a deplorable record of passing laws in response to media campaigns rather than objective evidence. This weakness came to a head in the 2016 referendum, with senior politicians openly deriding expert opinion in favour of energetically promoted fibs. Abandoning evidence has resulted in poor legislation and, with Brexit, has led the country to the brink of economic disaster. The Party proposes that the Government formally adopts a commitment to evidence-based policy-making to ensure that in future all proposals for legislation are based on sound, independently verified evidence.
Our performance in terms of equality, democratic participation, health, education and poverty alleviation should be systematically benchmarked against outcomes in comparable democracies using data from authoritative international sources such as the OECD and the World Health Organisation, supplemented by original research. Impact assessment studies by independent research organisations overseen by a strengthened UK Statistical Authority should be required as a pre-condition for new legislation. And the Government should be required to publish an independent review of the case for and against proposed laws, together with an appraisal of the supporting evidence.
Access to data and analysis
Accountable government cannot just rest on four-yearly elections, however fairly organised. Our politics must progress beyond arguments based on “my constituents are telling me” and statistically meaningless reader surveys published in the popular press. The question of what rigorously conducted surveys can tell us about what the public really think and want, and why, should be explored. Organisations such as the BBC’s Shared Data Unit and the Cambridge University Statistical Laboratory are doing outstanding work in exposing the misuse of statistical data in public life, but the audience they can reach is inevitably limited.
Building an evidence-based democracy also demands that the public have access to the data, analysis and different points of view they need to take balanced and informed decisions. This should be achieved by enriching our education system and funding exciting new printed, broadcast and on-line vehicles that reach out to people from every background.