Has Westminster’s ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality hampered Parliament’s response to the pandemic?

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 10th June 2020

A new report delves into how Parliament has responded to the current pandemic – and holds up a mirror to Westminster’s centralised set-up.  

Fair Vote UK’s report Democracy in the Age of Pandemic sets out the good and bad ways that Westminster has adapted to the coronavirus crisis – drawing on evidence from across the world. We were pleased to contribute the report at the ERS, as one of the key commentators on the ‘virtual Parliament’ proceedings.

It’s a timely publication, particularly given growing concerns over attempts to shut down remote participation for MPs.

The report stems from consultation with over 80 organisations, experts, and citizens. Early drafts of the report in April were full of praise for Parliament’s response to the pandemic – the shift to fully remote voting, virtual select committees and video contributions. Though it had been slow off the mark, Westminster’s hybrid solution – part social distancing, part digitisation – had been a ‘sensible and welcome mix of familiarity and innovation’.

Fast forward a couple of months, and we’ve witnessed the farcical scenes of MPs queuing for 40 minutes per vote (the ‘Commons conga line’), while shielding and vulnerable MPs have been disenfranchised – ‘jeopardising the good progress that had been made’, FairVote point out.

The ERS and FairVote agree that: “Abandoning the virtual Parliament was an irresponsible decision that should be reversed.” A recent poll by YouGov showed that 76% of British people think MPs should be allowed to continue working remotely.

So why was the government so keen to shut this down? And how did they manage it?

One reason is the centralised nature of democracy in the UK – which puts huge power in the hands of the executive. In contrast to other advanced democracies like New Zealand and Germany, Westminster’s system is built on unearned majorities and resisting opposition – rather than working together.

[bctt tweet=”In contrast to other advanced democracies like New Zealand and Germany, Westminster’s system is built on unearned majorities and resisting opposition – rather than working together.” username=”electoralreform”]

Below we republish part of FairVote’s report – on the long-term changes needed to tip the balance from executive power towards voters and representatives.

A significant proportion of respondents to Fair Vote UK’s consultation saw in this crisis not only the exposure of deep democratic shortcomings, but also the opportunity to introduce bold solutions…

They can be divided into three subcategories:

  1. Increased democratic engagement
  2. Decentralisation of power and emboldening of local authorities
  3. Proportional representation

Increasing democratic engagement

Multiple respondents argued for greater public participation in the democratic process. Frequently, they advocated reform took the shape of citizens’ assemblies. It was argued by numerous respondents that their introduction would improve political scrutiny, bolster public confidence and help foster bipartisan consensus.[1]

This was something promoted in the Electoral Reform Society’ submission to the consultation. An assembly or jury (composed of a representative sample of the population) could review legislation or emergency powers and thus act as an extra-parliamentary check on executive powers already massively extended as a result of the crisis.[2] In this regard, remote citizens’ assemblies seem especially well suited to the particularities of the current challenge….

Decentralising power

Secondly, many raised the related problem of over-centralised power. This crisis has demonstrated the importance of the central state, but it has also shown us that many problems are best tackled by the authorities closest to them.

In their response to this consultation, the Electoral Reform Society noted that the United Kingdom’s, ‘set-up is already one of the most centralised, undemocratic systems among advanced democracies’, and warned that, ‘this crisis must not further entrench that’.[3] Strengthening the many non-Westminster levels of the United Kingdom’s political system – from the devolved Parliaments to local councils – would allow a faster and potentially more robust response to a crisis like Covid-19.

This was the argument made by S. Bishop, who called for the devolution of, ‘much more power (and money) to the regions’, as well as the symbolic relocation of the country’s seat of government to the Midlands.[4] C. Mann noted similar, writing that the ‘imbalance’ at the heart of the relationship between the United Kingdom’s four countries needed to be ‘overhauled’.[5]

Proportional representation

Thirdly, multiple respondents made the case that the United Kingdom’s First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system had exacerbated the problems being faced in this crisis.[6]…The core argument was that a proportional voting system would instil a more pluralistic and collaborative political culture, thus facilitating the kind of bipartisan cooperation that such a large number of the questionnaire’s respondents expressly desired.

The Electoral Reform Society also stressed this point, claiming that FPTP, ‘locks out millions of ordinary people from the debate’, and undermines ‘cooperative politics’ from taking root both at the national and local level.[7]

Notably, their submission argued that this weakness of our system would be particularly felt as we emerge from this crisis and into a world where deep questions about public policy, how to pay for the Covid-19 response and the status of various sections of society and the economy will have to be debated and answered.[8]

These three areas cover a lot of different ground. At their heart, however, is a desire to strengthen and deepen democracy…There is undoubtedly a public sense that in this tragic challenge lies the potential for positive, lasting change.

Read Democracy in the Age of Pandemic here.

[1] D. Sibley, S. Bishop, J. Wire & E. Riminton-Drury, Written Evidence. Appendicies 83, 61, 52 & 14.

[2] Electoral Reform Society, Written Evidence. Appendix 85.

[3] Electoral Reform Society, Written Evidence. Appendix 85.

[4] S. Bishop, Written Evidence. Appendix 61.

[5] C. Mann, Written Evidence. Appendix 79.

[6] R. Hurst, J. Brian, D. Williams & N. S. Horsley, Written Evidence. Appendicies 28, 48, 57 & 80.

[7] Electoral Reform Society, Written Evidence. Appendix 85.

[8] Ibid.

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