7 democratic developments to watch out for this year

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 18th January 2021

What does democracy look like in a pandemic? It’s a question that came up a lot last year – and 2021 seems no different.

This year could see some major developments when it comes to voters’ right to be heard.

In no particular order, here’s our quick run-down of seven things to watch out for…

7. Threats to voter rights

The government has pledged to introduce mandatory voter ID – forcing all voters to bring identification to the polling station. This year could see ministers introduce legislation, despite a wide and long-standing coalition of opposition to the plans – from the likes of Age UK to the Salvation Army, Stonewall and racial equality group the Runnymede Trust.

With millions not owning any ID such as a driving licence or a passport – the plans risk making it harder for large numbers of people to exercise their rights. The ERS will be shining a spotlight on these plans and calling for ministers to prioritise the real problems with our democracy – like Westminster’s warped voting system, and the fact that nine million people are missing from the electoral roll.

6. Growing concern over unelected Lords

Just before Christmas, the Prime Minister appointed another 16 peers to the unelected House of Lords – and they will shortly start taking their seats. There will now be over 800 Lords voting on our laws, with seats for life. That includes nearly 100 hereditary aristocrats, able to sit there due to their birth.

There’s growing pressure for an overhaul of the Lords, as even peers admit its reputation has been badly damaged by Prime Ministers repeatedly packing the chamber with donors and party appointees. Could this year see parties get serious about overhauling the unelected chamber?

5. Devo debates

Last year saw widespread criticism over how local areas in England were treated, with some areas having Covid rules imposed, and others managing to negotiate major support packages. Some of this stemmed from the ‘patchwork’ nature of devolution in England. Why do some areas have strong local decision making powers, and others very little? Why do some areas lack mayors, and who decides? A parliamentary committee will look into this – and expect to see more debate as campaigners seek to move power out of Westminster and bring it towards local areas.

4. Labour moves towards proportional representation?

The movement for Labour to back a fair, proportional voting system at Westminster is getting stronger by the year. In 2020, we saw the launch of Labour for a New Democracy, a coalition of campaigners including the ERS as well as Compass, Make Votes Matter and more.

The National Policy Forum Justice and Home Affairs commission is expected to come out with a full report on the party’s constitution policies, and campaigners are clear that proportional representation – ensuring seats in parliament match how people vote – should be a part of the party’s vision for democracy. Separately, Keir Starmer has announced a Constitution Commission which will look at options for moving to a more ‘federal’ model for Britain. We await further details…

3. Votes at 16 comes into force in Wales – and more

16 and 17 year olds in Wales – as well as resident foreign nationals – will be able to vote in this May’s Welsh Parliament elections, giving more young people a say over decisions that affect them. With Scotland having extended the franchise years ago, it leaves Westminster looking pretty isolated when it comes to expanding civic engagement.

2. Government democracy plans

Could this be the year we learn what has become of the government’s ‘Democracy Commission’? Announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the vague plans have subsequently been downgraded to a series of policy reviews, such as reducing voters’ power to challenge government decisions in the courts. How about ending the scandal of safe seats and ignored votes? Here’s what we think should happen.

1. Elections delayed…again?

This week we learnt that local elections in England could be delayed yet again – potentially leaving a six-year gap since voters had a chance to pick their councillors. While it’s vital that voting is safe amid the pandemic, delaying elections again should be a last resort.

In Scotland, the government has said there’s ‘no reason’ to delay Holyrood elections, and Wales is only looking at a six-month delay as a last resort.

If the elections do go ahead on time in England, will local election staff be properly resourced to be Covid-secure? The government has so far failed to offer any additional funding to local election officials to deal with the increased strain of the pandemic, unlike many countries including the US.

Meanwhile, people in Wales and Scotland will be voting using a form of proportional representation, while English council election voters will be stuck with the rotten winner-takes-all system.

We’ll be pushing hard – as always – for all voters to be heard, by finally ditching First Past the Post. You can support our work by joining the ERS.

Join the ERS today

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