Back in May, our Westminster Beyond Brexit report raised a prescient question: “Do we want a democracy that gives the power of an absolute monarch to one party, or a government which is representative and can work responsively and responsibly to deal with the issues facing the country?”
Last week, this question was brought into sharp focus, when the Prime Minister announced that Parliament would be prorogued – shut down – for five weeks in October. Doing so will trigger the longest ‘prorogation’ since 1945. (It was no surprise that this move was seen by many as an attempt to stymie the campaign against a No Deal Brexit.)
But far from a standalone example of ‘undemocratic’ trickery, it was perfectly in keeping with the nature of Britain’s uncodified constitution: namely that the ‘rules of the game’ are very often whatever the government of the day says it is.
And once a precedent is broken (in this case, by holding a prorogation for ‘political’ reasons), it’s not the worth the paper it isn’t written on.
For a long time, defenders of the ‘Westminster system’ of politics – one which is centralised, built on loose conventions, and with sweeping powers for the executive – gave us strength and stability. There are few defending it on those terms now.
How our MPs are elected has a big role to play. The past three elections have failed to produce strong majorities – but the mentality that governments can ram through whatever this wish has remained. Governments see things as a zero-sum game – and millions of voices are ignored as a result.
Back in May we noted that when it comes to the distribution of power, “the possibility of ‘elective dictatorship’ is not far away.”
The initial EU Withdrawal Bill included broad ‘Henry VIII powers’, which allowed ministers to amend primary legislation without full Parliamentary scrutiny. The government soon stopped voting in Opposition Day votes (a limited number of days where the opposition handle the order) – rendering a traditional tool of scrutiny meaningless. And, right on cue, there came the threats of ignoring full-scale Parliamentary votes too: from votes of confidence to new legislation.
When politics is viewed as war, there are a lot of casualties. It doesn’t have to be that way. Polling for the ERS in May showed that while 64 percent of people think that our political system should encourage cooperation between political parties, only 19 percent believe that it does. And just 4% of people feel properly able to influence decisions made at Westminster.
No wonder when so many votes are ignored by the vote-wasting machine of First Past the Post elections. Designed to artificially force politics into a two-party shape, it simply shuts down when voters want to ‘shop around’.
Which they do of course do – and why not? The 2017 election saw the second-highest aggregate level volatility – the movement of votes between the parties – since 1931 (with the most volatile year being 2015). Yet with the one-person-takes-all system unable to accommodate these changes in voter behaviour, results have been erratic. People don’t just want to ‘accept what they’re given’. They want their voice to be heard, and their choices to be represented. That’s not too much to ask.
There’s a point of consensus right now: Westminster politics is fundamentally dysfunctional. So rather than continuing to patch up, cover up and press on with a system that is (quite literally) falling apart around us, perhaps it is time for wholesale renewal.
No Parliament elected under First Past the Post does the public justice. Now all sides are looking towards a general election to re-shuffle the parliamentary deck rather than solving the underlying problem of unrepresentative elections. Representative elections would strengthen Parliament vs the executive as the chamber would truly represent the country, rather than just the latest series of slim majorities and rogue results.
Real reform will mean giving power away rather than hoarding it: actively celebrating the values of discussion and negotiation over cut-throat competitiveness and personal rivalries.
This is a pivotal time in our country’s history. It’s easy to point the finger at politicians for the mess we’re in. But look a bit closer and it clear that it is our whole political system that is to blame.
As things stand, another General Election under the current crumbling set-up will still leave millions of people left on the sidelines – and could just lead us back to square one.
When the dust has settled, a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on our constitution could help find agreement on a way forward – making recommendations to prevent governments going rogue in future, and how to make our Parliament representative in a multi-party age.
It’s time for a different way of doing politics: with an electoral system that means parties have to listen to all of us, not just those in a handful of ‘swing’ seats.
Parliament is crumbling, but it can be fixed. Now let’s work together to sort it out.
Read the report: Westminster Beyond Brexit