Manifesto for Democracy 2024

Posted on the 12th June 2024

Too many citizens feel excluded from decision making, lacking the power to make their lives better. Over a third of people now ‘strongly agree’ that they ‘don’t think the government cares much about what people like me think’.[1]

Trust in political institutions and in politicians is now at record lows.[2] Satisfaction with democracy is also falling sharply.[3]

The result is that more and more people are disengaging from democratic processes.

Voters are increasingly recognising the failures of our political system. A clear majority think that our democratic system is not effective at solving major problems such as climate change, crime and housing.[4]

Addressing disengagement and disempowerment means giving voice to voters and to their local communities and this cannot happen without significantly redesigning the structure of politics at Westminster.

We urgently need to renew Westminster democracy

Westminster renewal

Reforming Westminster’s voting system

It’s time our political system valued every vote and every voter in every part of the country.

Currently, millions of voters live in safe seats where they will know who their MP is before a single vote has been cast with the real election taking place only for voters in a small number of marginals. Not only does this foster political disengagement and cynicism it also skews policy choices to the handful of areas that matter, leaving vast areas of the country ignored and forgotten.

The dysfunctions of our voting system do not end at disproportional results but seep into political outcomes, policy choices and the functioning of the state.

Around 70% of votes are routinely ignored in our General Elections, going to losing candidates or candidates who already have enough votes to win, and millions of voters feel they can’t vote for the party they want to – in 2019 a third of people said they made a tactical vote. It is no surprise people feel excluded from the important decisions.

FPTP is also dividing our country, polarising and frustrating voters. Majoritarian systems, like Westminster’s, which are typically highly centralised and have winner-takes-all (FPTP) voting systems, tend to deliver poorer democratic and social outcomes and are particularly vulnerable to polarisation and social dissatisfaction. The UK, USA, Australia and Canada have all experienced ‘soaring public discontent’ in recent years compared to other countries.[5]

The public know that something needs to change. Support for changing the voting system for Westminster elections is growing – a majority of the British public are in favour of changing to proportional representation for the Commons and support for FPTP is at an all-time low.[6]

It’s time we had fair votes at Westminster.

Electing the House of Lords

House of Lords reform has been unfinished business now for well over a century.

We are the only democracy in Europe to select our parliamentarians by appointment and a hereditary principle – the majority of second chambers worldwide are either directly or indirectly elected. Our second chamber still reflects the feudal combination of nobility and church, and appointments are primarily made by Prime Ministerial patronage which has no place in a modern democracy.

A fairly elected second chamber would give equal voice to the UK’s nations and regions at Westminster. A reformed upper house could serve as a forum where all the UK’s constituent parts can work together to address cross-border issues and raise sub-national interests and concerns. It could also serve to provide additional protections to our constitutional arrangements.

People see the second chamber as a cosy club for the privileged few and ongoing scandals are shaking public confidence in parliament – just 2% of the public have a ‘lot of confidence’ in the House of Lords.[7]

It is only right that those who live under the laws should have a say over who gets to decide them. It’s time to finish the job and finish reforming the House of Lords.

Devolution, citizen power and local electoral reform

The UK remains far too centralised. There should be a presumption in favour of decisions being taken as locally as possible but to do so meaningfully, local and regional government needs to have the right democratic structures, powers and resources and consider how to meaningfully engage citizens in decision-making.

In order to ensure approaches to English devolution have a sound democratic basis, the ERS recommends that it should be guided by principles of subsidiarity, democratic legitimacy, autonomy, transparency, accountability and responsiveness, ensuring devolution occurs at the appropriate level and that devolution decisions involve citizens.

First Past the Post exacerbates England’s democratic deficit by reducing political expression and representation and reproducing Westminster politics locally. This problem has been compounded by extending FPTP to Mayoral Election in the Elections Act 2022 which in 2024 saw reduced mandates for those holding these important roles.

Proportional representation for English local government would help reinvigorate democracy at the local level, ending the proliferation of one-party states and single-party domination of council chambers and opening councils to a diversity of voices. Scotland has been using a fairer system for local government since 2007 – voter choice has more than doubled, uncontested seats are now a rarity, and one-party states are a thing of the past.  

Alongside better representation local government should bring citizens into the debate, letting communities have a say through citizen assemblies or other deliberative democratic processes.

Maximising voter participation

Too many people are excluded from democratic processes and face unnecessary barriers to participating. The result is that we see huge gaps in who has a say. The turnout gap between younger and older voters has been growing – in 2019 the turnout estimate for 18-34s groups was 54% whilst for 65+ it was 77% – and there are major differences right across society in whose voice is heard in our democracy.

There are simple changes that can be made to help address this imbalance.

Votes at 16

Research shows that the earlier someone is engaged in a democratic process the more likely they are to continue to engage throughout their life.[8] Lowering the voting age to 16 and strengthening citizenship education can help nurture more active citizens for the future health of our democracy.

Lowering the voting age to 16 would also allow a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice.

Now that 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Wales can vote for their members of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, as well as their local councillors, it’s time to extend this right to all 16- and 17-year-olds and give those who can vote for their MSP or MS the chance to vote for their MP too.

Automatic voter registration

The Electoral Commission estimate around 7-8 million potential voters are not correctly registered at their current address. In addition, surveys of polling staff find that people turning up to vote and not being registered is by far the biggest problem they encounter in polling stations.[9]

Automatic or more automated voter registration would ensure fewer voters miss out on their chance to participate. Automatic registration would see electoral administrators populate the register from existing data sources before confirming with voters, more automated or assisted registration could see voters who identified as eligible from other data sources prompted to register, or integrated registration could see voters helped to register during interaction with other agencies.

Automatic registration is common around the world and would help reduce the pressure on EROs in the run up to elections. Not only would AVR ensure that all eligible voters are on the registers, but it would help to deal with inaccurate registrations, for instance where entries have become redundant due to home movement.

Certain groups are far less likely to be registered, these include young people, minority ethnic groups, people in lower DE socio-economic groups and people in privately rented accommodation; and research shows that people with learning disabilities can be deterred from voting due to the complexity of the registration system.[10]

The Welsh government is already modernising voter registration, and the Electoral Commission has called for change. The UK government at Westminster should urgently introduce similar legislation for UK general elections, to ensure as few people as possible are denied their vote by an outdated registration system.

The addition of an online look-up system would allow people to check whether they are registered / where they are registered / whether their details are up to date. This would take pressure off EROs in the run up to an election where they see a significant increase in registration applications. 

Constituency boundaries

With parliamentary boundaries drawn on the basis of registered electors, incomplete electoral rolls have an impact on how constituencies are drawn. ERS supports boundaries being based on population to truly reflect constituency size. Allowing up to 10% difference in size between seats would help to minimise disruption for both citizens and elected representatives.

We have called for the boundary review to be based on a more accurate and complete data source than the electoral register to ensure all citizens are counted. We recommend using census population statistics complemented by citizenship information provided by passport data.

Repeal Voter ID rules

Thousands of voters have been prevented from casting their vote as a result of new unnecessary and damaging voter ID laws. In the 2023 local elections alone, at least 14,000 voters lost their vote after being turned away at the polling station. More were dissuaded from turning out in the first place or didn’t reach the polling station after being turned away outside.

Voter ID creates another barrier to voting, risks undermining existing confidence in the system, and disenfranchises many who wish to vote.

Out of all alleged cases of electoral fraud in the 2019 elections, only 33 related to personation fraud at the polling station[11] – this comprises 0.000057% of the over 58 million votes cast in all the elections that took place that year. Only one of those allegations resulted in a conviction, and one a caution.[12] Despite this, the voter ID scheme introduced in the Elections Act is one of the most restrictive with only a limited number of photographic IDs deemed acceptable and no alternatives for voters who turn up without ID.

There was no evidenced-based justification for its introduction and continuing to place this burden on voters is likely to continue to exacerbate inequalities in voter participation. The government’s own report concluded that the evidence is ‘inconclusive’ on whether the scheme has reduced personation or made it more easily identifiable.[13]

If the Voter ID requirement is not removed, significant changes should be made. This could include:

  • Expanding the range of accepted IDs (including non-photographic IDs and other forms of ID which people are likely to be carrying e.g. bank cards)
  • Including poll cards as a form of ID
  • Introduce vouching (in which someone with ID can vouch for someone without)
  • Allow for statutory declarations on the day of the poll

It is also essential that robust data on the impact of this scheme is collected.

Fair and equal representation

Enact Section 106 of the Equality Act

One small step towards improving representation in parliament would be to enact section 106 of the Equalities Act 2010 which would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections.

Enactment of Section 106 would allow for greater transparency over who is and isn’t standing for election; at present there is no formal requirement for parties to report on the diversity of candidates for election – who is coming forward to be nominated and stand for selection.

Parties need to be held to account for their efforts to improve political diversity and representation – enacting Section 106 in the first step towards this.

Gender quotas

2028 will mark the centenary of women getting equal voting rights to men. Yet without significant efforts to improve representation at Westminster, we will pass this landmark with women still to achieve equal representation in our Parliament.

The total number of women MPs ever in the UK is 564, this figure is not enough to fill the House of Commons once. At the dissolution of Parliament on the 30th May 2024 women made up only 35% of MPs. It is evident that more needs to be done to increase the representation of women in Parliament.

The only nationally elected body in the UK to have ever achieved gender parity was Wales in 2003, it promptly dipped under the 50% mark shortly after and since then the progress towards gender equality in our elected bodies across the UK has stalled.

Research shows the gender quotas are an effective mechanism to increase the number of women MPs, particularly when used in conjunction with a proportional electoral system.[14]

Cleaning up political finance

A fifth of all major political donations in the two decades between 2001 and 2021 came from just 10 individuals.[15] With party finding so reliant on so few there is a real risk that our politics can be bought by the highest bidder. We need a level playing field, where all voters feel they have a stake in our democracy not just those with the deepest pockets.

Donation caps

To protect our democracy against undue influence and to maintain voter confidence in electoral processes the ERS believes that an individual funding cap should be in place.

Caps on donations would help end the big-donor culture and help shift the balance back towards voters, reducing the cap on the amount that parties are allowed to spend would help end the arms race between parties at election time, and an increased element of public funding would bring the UK more in line with other democracies, loosening the grip of the wealthy few on our democracy.

Stronger controls on donations

We support the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations of a risk-based ‘know-your-donor’ policy; clarifying that to be a permissible donor, an individual must be on a UK electoral register; and ensuring that company donations should not exceed net profits generated in the UK.8

More also needs to be done to close the loophole around unincorporated associations (UAs). Donations from unincorporated associations – responsible for more than £14 million in donations to political parties over five years[16] – do not currently need to reveal the true source of their donations. When concerns about who is attempting to influence our democracy are growing, this is a worrying gap in our rules.

Unincorporated associations should be required to conduct permissibility checks on relevant donations (i.e. money intended for political activity), and there should be greater transparency around political gifts made to UAs.

Increased civil and criminal enforcement

The ERS supports a fully impartial and independent Electoral Commission and is strongly opposed to ministerial involvement in setting the Electoral Commission’s strategy as part of the ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ introduced in the Elections Act 2022.

The Electoral Commission should have the powers it needs to obtain and share information to ensure compliance and there should be an increase in the maximum fine it is able to levy.

We believe that the Electoral Commission should be given the role of monitoring and enforcing compliance with candidate finance laws, so that there is one simple, consistent and proportionate regime for candidates, parties, and third-party campaigners.

Consolidation of electoral law

We also support the simplification, modernisation and consolidation of electoral law, in line with the recommendations made by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission. Electoral law is currently dispersed across many separate statutes making it difficult for both campaigners and the regulator.

 

 

[1] NatCen https://natcen.ac.uk/publications/bsa-41-damaged-politics

[2] ibid

[3] Bennett Institute https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/publications/global-satisfaction-democracy-report-2020/

[4] ERS polling by YouGov (3442 adults in GB) Fieldwork: 20th – 21st December 2021

[5] Bennett Institute https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/publications/global-satisfaction-democracy-report-2020/

[6] NatCen https://natcen.ac.uk/publications/bsa-41-damaged-politics

[7] YouGov political tracker (August 12-14th 2023)

[8] https://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/01/18/beyond-anecdotes-on-lowering-the-voting-age-new-evidence-from-scotland/

[9][9] https://theconversation.com/voter-id-our-first-results-suggest-local-election-pilot-was-unnecessary-and-ineffective-100859

[10] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/parliamentary-briefings/automatic-voter-registration-avr-briefing/

[11] Uberoi, E. and Johnston, N. (2021). Voter ID. House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, number 9187.

[12] Electoral Commission (2020) 2019 Electoral Fraud Data.

[13] Dept for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (2023) Electoral Integrity Programme evaluation: year 1

[14] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/pursuing-parity-examining-gender-quotas-across-electoral-systems/#sub-section-4

[15] 20% of UK political donations come from just ten men | openDemocracy

[16] Britain’s political parties are quietly raking in millions. No one will say where it’s coming from – POLITICO

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