The current crisis has been a long time coming – and Westminster’s system is behind it

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 24th September 2019

It’s easy right now to get caught up in the daily drama of politics – to focus on individuals, and the game playing, and to forget that the current political chaos is all part of a much bigger picture.

Because for all the daily drama, the last year of political turmoil is the outcome of a system that is failing and has been failing for a long time.

The party system is fragmenting and has been for a while. The last two General Elections were the most volatile – that’s the movement of people between parties – since 1931.

And new political cleavages have come to prominence – not only Brexit but on climate, internationalism and more. These shifts are causing the system to malfunction.

All democratic systems have trade-offs. The Westminster system trade-off is, supposedly, government stability and the ability for the government of the day to enact its programme with as little friction as possible.

In return, we have to accept an Executive which has – compared to other democracies – extraordinary power, and an upper chamber packed with unelected individuals – an undemocratic and therefore weak chamber in order to maintain executive strength.

And we’re lumbered with a disproportional electoral system that wastes the majority of votes, sacrificing fair outcomes in order to create a majority. Sixty-eight percent of votes in 2017 made no impact on the local result, our analysis shows.

But that trade-off to get ‘strong’ one party government only works in a two-party system.

In a world that’s a bit more complex than that, this arrangement is over. For good.

Yet we are left with an overbearing executive and warped election outcomes. Parties and candidates can slip in on fractions of the vote, while the prospect of ‘wrong winner’ elections looms large: a government in power despite winning fewer votes than the next placed party.

When marginal seats are won with just handfuls of votes in it, our system is easily exploited.  And the prize is huge.

Our political system is not designed to share power. It is a system that preserves hierarchy and hoards power at the centre. As system so stuck in the past that there are still seats reserved in our second chamber for male aristocrats.

Our political system is not designed to share power. It is a system that preserves hierarchy and hoards power at the centre. Click To Tweet

As well as flaws in the system, there are growing inequalities at the input end. Turnout has increased at each of the last four general elections. But the gaps in who turns out are growing. You are far less likely to vote if you are young, working class or from an ethnic minority. That was not the case decades ago.

Proposals for voter ID can only make this worse – potentially disenfranchising millions at a time when people already feel marginalised: just 4% feel able to ‘fully’ influence decisions by MPs at Westminster (BMG polling for ERS this year).

As well as a system that hordes power at the centre, and ignores votes, there are huge gaps in our electoral rules themselves. Vast sums of money flow into our democracy with little oversight.

You can still for instance, set up a company in the UK and fund political activity through it even if that company does no business here – one of many loopholes that put fair elections under threat.

So we need to stop seeing democratic reform as a nice add on. Democratic reform is not separate to economic and social change – it is fundamental.

The ballot box is the great equaliser of any democracy. But that only works if votes are equal – both in terms of who participates and whether their votes count. And it only works when our Parliament is fully elected, not a place for preserving privilege.

We cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge but nor can we assume that these systemic flaws can be used for good. It’s now time to create a democracy that works for everyone.

The following is based on a speech by Dr Jess Garland, from the ERS and Fabian Society event at Labour conference on 23rd September.

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