200 years since the Peterloo Massacre, Westminster is still broken

Jessica Blair
Author:
Jessica Blair

Posted on the 16th August 2019

The events of 2019 have put the problems of Westminster’s system into sharp focus. 

From discussions about the Prime Minister proroguing parliament, to MPs leaving main parties to form their own (only to splinter within weeks), the last few months have seen parties trying to patch up cracks that have been developing in our political system. 

These cracks aren’t new: politics has been fragmenting for decades as Britain changes. But Westminster’s political system has totally failed to keep up. 

Today marks 200 years since one of the first battles for the vote – the Peterloo Massacre. It’s a good day to discuss how our political structures need to change today. 

A broken system

The failure of the electoral system to properly represent voters’ choices is having a stark effect on how government works (or doesn’t). It’s no wonder we’re in deadlock when Parliament is skewed by a discredited, winner-takes-all mentality. The 2017 election saw 68% of votes fail to count towards the local result – and one in five felt forced to vote ‘tactically’ – holding their noses at the ballot box.

First Past the Post is meant to buffer big parties, but poll after poll shows the two main parties (Labour and the Conservatives) on around 60% support – 10 points below their lowest ever joint general election result. With votes ‘split’ across hundreds of constituencies, those kind of numbers could see some wildly random results ensuing – with unfairness and disillusionment taken to whole new levels. 

With votes ‘split’ across hundreds of constituencies, we could see some wildly random results ensuing - with unfairness and disillusionment taken to whole new levels. Click To Tweet

We’ve already seen evidence of parties trying to get round this. The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in early August saw both the Greens and Plaid Cymru stand aside to boost the prospects of the eventual winners, the Liberal Democrats. The problem with this is that shouldn’t need to happen. The disproportionate nature of the voting system is forcing this kind of politics where parties will potentially divvy up where they stand and where they stand aside. This reduces voter choice: put simply current system cannot reflect what voters actually want. 

 Westminster's first past the post system is forcing the kind of politics where parties will potentially divvy up where they stand and where they stand aside. Click To Tweet

Parliament’s private members’ club

200 years since Peterloo, the majority of Parliamentarians are unelected: there are around 800 Lords compared to 650 elected MPs. 

200 years since Peterloo, the majority of Parliamentarians are unelected: there are around 800 Lords compared to 650 elected MPs. Click To Tweet

And for far too many of its members, the second chamber of our parliament is a cosy club for the privileged few: with £305 a day in tax-free expenses and the best terrace in London. Yet this is not just another private members’ club – it is one which has real powers over the law of the land.

We’re basically alone in Europe for having a fully-unelected revising chamber. And no other country in the democratic world has a second chamber bigger than ours. Globally, only China has a bigger body, and they merely meet to rubberstamp government policies. 

No other country in the democratic world has a second chamber bigger than ours. Globally, only China has a bigger body, and they merely meet to rubberstamp government policies. Click To Tweet

It’s time to abolish the bloated House of Lords and create a new chamber to revise our legislation – one where the public picks the members, and can hold them accountable. 

It would also be a chance to think properly about devolution, with a second chamber representing the nations and regions. 

Diversity deserts

Westminster remains one of the worst offenders when it comes to a lack of diversity. Just 32% of MPs are women. 2017 was described as “the most diverse parliament”, yet figures show just 8% of MPs were from an ethnic minority. The House of Lords performs even worse, in case you’re wondering. 

No institution is perfect, but Westminster is substantially behind other areas of political life. The Welsh Assembly, for instance, made headlines in 2003 when it became the first parliament in the world to hit 50:50 gender equality. While not currently at those levels it is still leaps and bounds ahead of Westminster at just under 47%. 

Diversity is good for politics for a number of reasons but ultimately ensures that voters feel represented by people they identify with who they feel can represent their interests. Unless Westminster becomes more representative of the nation as a whole it will continue to be seen as serving the minority and it is not surprising that a recent Full Fact report put trust in politicians to tell the truth at just 19%. 

Unless Westminster becomes more representative of the nation as a whole it will continue to be seen as serving the minority Click To Tweet

Politicians need to take radical action to rectify this, including by collecting and publishing data on diversity in parties, and overhauling the voting system to end the ‘seat blocking’ culture encouraged by First Past the Post. 

A new democratic settlement for the UK

The centralised model of power represented by Westminster is completely at odds with the shape of the UK and how devolution has evolved in its nations. 

The Brexit process has shone a light on the tension between Westminster and the devolved administrations. Our report Westminster Beyond Brexit highlighted the ad hoc nature of arrangements for the respective governments of nations to meet and iron out disputes. 

We need a constitutional convention to look closely at what model could work best for the UK. 

We need a constitutional convention to look closely at what model could work best for the UK. Click To Tweet

The need for change across our democracy is urgent. Just 19% of people in the UK saying they trust politicians to the truth – that will only change when people feel connected to their representatives and able to influence decisions in Parliament.

200 years on from the Peterloo Massacre, a group of Trade Unionists united under the banner of Politics for the Many are holding a major conference in Manchester. This conference will address the challenges and opportunities that face the left and trade union movement in campaigning for real democracy today. Tickets are selling fast, so get yours now.

Buy Tickets for This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Read more posts...

Is there proportional representation in Scotland?

For most of the 20th century, every election in Scotland was conducted under the First Past the Post system, from elections of MPs to local councillors. Much like in the rest of the UK, this...

Posted 05 Sep 2019

Compared to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is very proportional