Response to Labour Party on Democracy and the Constitution Consultation

Posted on the 16th July 2020

National Policy Forum: Justice and Home Affairs Commission Consultation

Response from the Electoral Reform Society: July 2020

Background

Westminster’s political system is both distrusted and dysfunctional. Only 4% feel they have a lot of opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by MPs at Westminster, according to BMG polling for the ERS [1]. That includes supporters of the big parties: 62% of Labour voters and 64% of Conservative voters feel they have very few or no opportunities to influence and inform decisions at Westminster.

In recent months, the centralised nature of decision-making at Westminster has become evident. So too has the lack of a robust, transparent structure for dealing with relations and differences between the nations and regions of the UK. Decisions have often felt imposed from the top, with little meaningful dialogue with local government and a culture of mutual distrust fostered by top-down decision-making and archaic ideas about governance.

There is a huge opportunity for a political party that seeks to give power to the many by overhauling Westminster’s broken, centralised structures: moving power away from the centre, not through simply moving departments around but by implementing the kind of democratic transformation Britain needs.

The need for a wholesale renewal of our democracy is now more urgent than ever. Westminster’s broken voting system and centralising tendencies give almost unrestrained power to the leader of the government, however few citizens voted for them, while the House of Lords continues to perpetuate class-based hierarchy and to represent the interests of the few.

For too long, Westminster’s political system has been for the few and by the few. With millions of voices excluded from the conversation, the interests and concerns of the UK’s nations and areas outside of London have been pushed to the margins. Such an atmosphere of alienation is a recipe for distrust.

While the ERS does not have a policy position on federalism, we have set out some lessons from other countries on how federalism can be done effectively, in our 2019 report ‘Westminster Beyond Brexit’.

  1. Principles of federalism

Our democratic principles are not being well-served by the current political system. We need to rebuild our democracy on stronger and fairer foundations, and move from a model of power-hoarding centralisation to power-sharing across political institutions at different levels.

Reform of the House of Lords has rightly been at the heart of most reform proposals in recent years. Engagement with reforming the Lords has been long-standing and cross-partisan, and should form the basis of a new federal settlement.

Second chamber reform can improve the health of our democracy by allowing for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations and localities, particularly in this post-Brexit era. An elected, territorial second chamber could serve as a forum in which the UK’s constituent parts work together in the 21st century, supplementing our current mechanisms for cross-border working.

International experience shows that there are a variety of ways in which a territorial second chamber can be constituted to perform its functions.

Territorial second chambers can represent the interests of the sub- national legislature, the sub-national executive, the people themselves, or a mixture of the two. They can be directly or indirectly elected.

Territory-specific powers can be granted through vetoes/exclusive powers over legislation, seating and voting arrangements, extra powers in debates and committees, the power to initiate legislation, accountability to territorial

Key considerations for reforming the second chamber are:

  • Composition of the chamber
  • Election of members
  • Specific powers over territorial issues
  • Relationship with the House of Common
  • Further devolution to the nations and localities of the UK –including to and within England.

The ERS is happy to provide further input in exploring these questions.

  1. Lessons from English and Welsh devolution

For around a decade the ERS has been making the case that devolution in England has been imposed in a top-down manner – with little involvement of local citizens in shaping what they want their new institutions to look like, what areas they should cover, and how they are represented (see here).

The governance arrangements have often mirrors Westminster’s centralised set-up, with ‘scrutiny’ boards often dominated by one party, an executive-heavy model of governance and often subject to the winner-takes-all politics of First Past the Post.

The dominance of local authority leaders (rather than PR-elected local Assemblies, or represented Citizen bodies) in decision making has in some ways exacerbated the gender and racial divides in local governance, with many Metro Mayor set-ups appearing to be ‘pale, male and stale’.

We have helped conduct Citizens’ Assemblies on local devolution to put local people’s voices at the centre of new devolution settlements.

We would support the use of a citizens’ assembly in England to propose options for truly democratic devolution.

In Wales, it is clear that there is more to do in terms of securing the public’s trust in the Senedd and therefore its future. We would urge Labour to endorse civil society groups’ Manifesto for Democracy proposals going into the 2021 elections.

Local government in Scotland also often feels remote due to the severe lack of local councillors, an under-representation problem that ERS Scotland has raised with the Scottish Government.

  1. Lessons from Parliament’s handling of the pandemic

As noted at the beginning of this document, in recent months, the centralised nature of decision-making at Westminster has become evident. So too has the lack of a robust, transparent structure for dealing with relations and differences between the nations and regions of the UK. Decisions have often felt imposed from the top, with little meaningful dialogue with local government and a culture of mutual distrust fostered by top-down decision-making and archaic ideas about governance.

We will soon be providing evidence to Parliament’s Procedure Committee on this issue, and have already responded to the campaign group FairVote’s consultation on the lessons that can be learnt from the pandemic.

We have noted that it is important to have protocols in place that guarantee robust scrutiny in times like this.

For example, Parliament must be able to rapidly set up a dedicated, rapid-response Select Committee during crises. The initial non-functioning of the Liaison Committee was an issue early on in the pandemic.

There is a clear need to have remote voting/virtual participation ‘ready to go’, and Parliament’s approval for change in the set-up, with fully accessible voting. There was a real issue with the government shutting down the virtual parliament with an in-person vote – many MPs could not attend.

There is still a risk that government can prorogue Parliament amid a crisis with no clear scrutiny arrangements in place. This could be rectified by handing say over prorogation to a cross-party Speaker’s committee. Allowing and enabling formal virtual meetings of select committees to take place even when Parliament is prorogued could also be a welcome step.

  1. Constitutional convention

We have long called for a constitutional convention. It must begin with clear principles, goals and political buy in. It must not be used to kick vital political reforms into the long grass, or over-burdened with vague parameters or too many subjects.

The ERS’ view is that a well-run, representative constitutional convention could set out a package of reforms to be implemented. A constitutional convention could be tasked with setting out options for fairer voting systems to switch to, or options for federalism and the powers/role of a proportionally-elected second chamber.

  1. The most pressing democratic issues

The First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system at the heart of Westminster’s politics is increasingly failing on its own terms.

Westminster’s warped electoral system is indeed one of Labour’s challenges. The fact that not all votes are treated equally means that 71% of the votes at the December general election had no impact on the local result. See our 2019 General Election report: Voters Left Voiceless.

Labour banks up a massive number of votes in areas it doesn’t ‘need’ and its supporters are denied any representation in vast swathes of the country. This set-up is damaging not just for trust, but our economy too – with cash splashed on swing seats while millions of people elsewhere go ignored.

Despite an increasing trend of voters shopping around at elections, most seats don’t change hands (some since the time of Queen Victoria). Most voters get locked down in safe seats, sometimes going decades without having someone they voted for representing them. It is a recipe for unchecked inequality and political isolation.

The time for zero-sum politics has passed. It is striking to note that countries with more cooperative political systems – including New Zealand and Germany – were among those best able to handle the pandemic.

During the leadership election, Keir Starmer identified the problem of under-representation in politics, and promised to consult Labour members on proportional representation. This is a chance to reconnect democracy with citizens.

With trust in politics at rock bottom, it is time to be bold. Backing real democracy and proportional representation might also help Starmer attract new voters. Across the spectrum, too many have felt powerless for too long. It’s time for a new constitutional settlement fit for the future.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system embodies the principles of fairness and local representation, and has long been the ERS’ preferred electoral system. STV operates in small multi-member constituencies, generally of around three to six MPs. It is used in the UK to elect Scottish local councils, and all representatives in Northern Ireland except Westminster MPs. STV has many advantages, producing broadly proportional election results while combining this with powerful constituency representation and ties.

See here for more information.

House of Lords reform

The House of Lords starts from a place of maintaining class-based hierarchy rather than working for voters. No amount of tweaking its size can cover for the fact that it fails on almost all democratic principles. Twenty years on from the House of Lords Act 1999, reforming the House of Lords remains firmly unfinished business.

Reforming our second chamber can improve the health of our democracy by allowing for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations and localities, particularly in this post-Brexit era. The ERS propose a second chamber elected on a territorial basis to serve as a forum in which the four nations (including English localities, depending on how they choose to be represented at the national level) can work together in the 21st century, supplementing our current inadequate mechanisms for intergovernmental relations.

International experience shows that there are a variety of ways in which a territorial second chamber can be constituted to perform its functions. In Germany, for example, members of the state governments sit in the federal second chamber, while in Australia and the US senators are directly elected by the people on a territorial basis.

Territorial second chambers can represent the interests of the sub-national legislature, the sub-national executive, the people themselves, or a mixture of these; they can be directly or indirectly elected; and territory-specific powers can be granted through vetoes/exclusive powers over legislation, seating and voting arrangements, extra powers in debates and committees, the power to initiate legislation, accountability to territorial institutions.

Whatever the end formation, radical reform of the second chamber can help to rebuild politics post-Brexit in a way that represents the whole of the UK not just the titled few.

Voter registration and ID

It is a national scandal that over 9m people are missing from the electoral roll. We urgently need to shift towards forms of automatic registration. Judith Cummins’ bill is a welcome step in advancing this issue.

Voter ID could also lock millions out of the polling booth. It is deeply inegalitarian and the ERS is proud to help lead the campaign against this dangerous policy.

Election rules fit for the 21st century

We need to move swiftly on modernising Britain’s ‘dangerously outdated’ electoral rules.

The Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies’ recent report rightly found that: “Electoral law must be completely updated for an online age. There have been no major changes to electoral law since the invention of social media and the rise of online political advertising.”

The findings backs up the long-standing calls of the ERS, the APPG on Electoral Campaign Transparency, the Electoral Commission, Law Commission, FairVote and many more.

There has been woeful inaction from the government when it comes to updating Britain’s analogue-age campaign rules.

When it comes to misinformation and transparency, we cannot leave the rules up to the tech giants. Unaccountable firms cannot be the gatekeepers of our political debate. A clear code of practice for online transparency must be the first step to cleaning up their act and safeguarding our election debates.

We have raised concerns that tackling misinformation will be left out of the Online Harms Bill. This would be an unbelievable step back, given the harm we have seen misinformation cause during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ERS recently contributed to the All Party Political Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age study. This ground-breaking report set out 20 recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referendums from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

And just last October, the ERS also launched the Loophole List of gaps in our electoral law that are putting democracy at risk. Some of the loopholes mean that donors based in foreign tax havens, or operating through untraceable shell companies can pump in money to influence our political parties. Others allow for unscrupulous individuals to pay for anonymous ‘dark’ ads on line, or pump out disinformation during election periods to sway the result.

An Edelman Trust Barometer poll in January showed that three in five people had lost faith in democracy. The study polled 34,000 respondents in 28 markets and found that only Russia ranked below the UK on public trust.

The failure to update Britain’s electoral laws since the advent of social media has contributed to another worrying fact: voters say politicians are most responsible for spreading misinformation. It’s time to take on the challenges of fake news and undue electoral interference.

Our mess of electoral law must be comprehensively modernised. But this must not stop vital measures being put in place in the interim – including, at the very least, online ‘imprints’ and strengthening fines for electoral offences. The current fines are the ‘cost of doing business’ for bad actors.

Our decades’ old electoral law is putting free elections under threat. There are clear points of consensus on the way forward. The government must get to grips with this now before it’s too late. It’s time to rein in the wild west online.”

See the ERS’ Reining in the Wild West report for more information on how to bring our electoral law into the digital age.

Enhancing democratic participation

Power and a clear voice for voters cannot be achieved without bringing politics closer to people, meaning bottom-up citizen involvement is necessary to ensure the legitimacy of, and trust in, our institutional set-up and democracy more broadly.

Forms of deliberative democracy, especially citizens’ assemblies and constitutional conventions, are being used more frequently around the world as a way of providing for citizen input in the policy-making process. These ideas have well and truly entered the mainstream now as an inspiring method for deepening and aiding democratic processes.

We must deal with the toxic polarisation of our politics by building mechanisms to bring people together to hear each other’s views as well as expressing their own and we have to create opportunities for citizens to influence politics, both at the national level and closer to home, giving people a voice in shaping the future of their communities.

An English Constitutional Convention – led by citizens – should be established to consider devolution within England, building upon the work of local citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative democratic processes to give people a say on how they are represented.

In addition, a UK-wide constitutional convention should consider the democratic future of the union in a holistic manner. The work of sub-national conventions and assemblies could feed into the UK Convention, which would then focus on the broader constitutional questions such as the relationship between the constituent parts of the UK.

People should also be involved in politics throughout the decision-making process, not just at election time. Multiple entry points for democratic participation should be created at different levels to address local policy issues.

It is vital all parties develop a response to the ‘hollowing out’ of democracy we have seen over the past decade. Alongside existing policies in support of extending the franchise and promoting citizenship education, such policies will help to create a democracy fit for the 21st century.

Please contact [email protected] if you have any questions or we can provide further information/assistance.

References

Read the ERS’ recent report on how to make Westminster work for everyone: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/westminster-beyond-brexit/

See more on the Single Transferrable Vote here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems/types-of-voting-system/single-transferable-vote/

[1] Polling by BMG for ERS, 7th – 10th May 2019, Sample: 1541 GB adults aged 18+. Vote intention weighted sample sizes (Labour: 341; Conservative: 297; Brexit Party: 115).

[2] Aggregate volatility is measured as the combined change in vote shares for each of the parties divided by two.

[3] Los, Bart, Philip McCann, John Springford, and Mark Thissen (2017). The mismatch between local voting and the local economic consequences of Brexit. Regional Studies, 51 (5), 786–99.

Spicer, Jason S. (2018). Electoral Systems, Regional Resentment and the Surprising Success of Anglo-American Populism. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 11 (1), pp. 115–41.

[4] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/westminster-beyond-brexit-ending-the-politics-of-division/#sub-section-10

 

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