Monday marks the start of the first ‘National Democracy Week’ – the government’s initiative to encourage democratic participation.
It has been established on the premise that “regardless of who we are or where we are from, we must work together to ensure that every member of society has an equal chance to participate in our democracy and to have their say.”
It’s hard to disagree with the intention. The problem is – we are nowhere near that vision in the UK.
1. Westminster’s broken system
Let’s start with Westminster’s broken voting system. Each constituency has just one MP – and that is where the problem lies.
It means that all votes cast for anyone but the elected MP are discarded. But there’s another injustice not often discussed: all votes for MP above what they need to win are discarded too – they do not count towards the final result.
Over 22 million votes were wasted in these ways at the 2017 General Election. That’s a staggering 68% of the total.
There are fairer ways of electing representatives already in use in the UK. Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland are used to the idea of the seats in parliament matching how they vote. They rank the candidates with numbers rather than putting one X – if their first choice vote isn’t needed, their second choice is taken instead, and so on. Votes aren’t thrown on the electoral scrapheap – and you don’t have to second-guess your fellow citizens by settling for a ‘lesser evil’.
But on the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act – which gave women the same voting rights as men – we have to recognise that the UK’s franchise is grossly unequal.
2. An unequal franchise
In Scotland – and soon Wales – 16 and 17-year-olds have the vote for their elections. But they, and over a million in the rest of the UK are denied a say for Westminster.
16 and 17-year-olds took part in huge numbers in the Scottish independence referendum. And they’ve stayed engaged since.
And in Wales, plans are afoot to extend a democratic say to those young adults.
But these people will still be unable to vote in arguably the most important ballots, General Elections.
The experience from Scotland has revealed that 16 and 17-year-olds embrace the responsibility of being able to vote when they have it. So it’s time to fix Britain’s unequal franchise and extend that right.
3. A House of Cronies
The most startling inequality sits within the walls of Parliament though. Unlike the elected House of Commons, the Lords is largely made up of appointed life peers.
A vast number of these have previously worked in politics – and it has become something of a private member’s club.
There are even 92 hereditary peers – 91 men and one woman who inherited their titles. On Wednesday, the results will be announced for a ‘hereditary peer by-election’ – where aristocrats already in the Lords decide which aristocrats can vote on our laws for life. This, in the 21st century.
There is only one woman on the aristocrats’ approved candidates list.
4. The political gender gap
That’s not to say women are fairly represented in politics as a whole. With women making up only 33% of local councillors, only four out of 16 elected mayors, and no directly-elected metro-mayors, the issue of women’s representation extends well beyond the walls of Westminster.
But currently there is no official information on the diversity of those standing for election at any level of government.
Equality legislation already exists which would make this information transparent. Section 106 of the Equality Act (2010) requires political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections to the House of Commons and devolved administrations.
The problem is that the government has yet to enact it. Why are they dragging their feet on this simple change?
There is so much to be done to ensure everyone has equal access to politics in the UK. Thankfully, many of the changes won’t take much to implement.
But in Democracy Week of all times, it’s vital that we start trying to make that vision – for “an equal chance to participate in our democracy” – a reality.