On Sunday, former Brexit Secretary David Davis wrote an important piece in the Times arguing that ‘Brexit is the writing on the wall for our democracy’. He points out that recent constitutional chaos has shown how desperately we need political reform in Westminster to bring people together.
His call comes as a cloud of uncertainty casts shadows across Westminster – new research from the British Election Study has shown that the UK is heading into the most unpredictable and volatile general election campaign we’ve seen in decades.
It is a bleak irony of our time that Westminster’s electoral system – supposedly designed to ensure ‘stability’ – is now itself an engine of uncertainty. When people want to ‘shop around’ more than ever, the winner-takes-all system of First Past the Post simply breaks down. The result? An epidemic of ‘tactical’ voting, ‘hold your nose’ elections and vote-splitting on an industrial scale.
As Professor Rob Ford tells the Guardian: “Tiny shifts in votes can upset an avalanche of seats, with no relation between the national vote and number of seats won. It’s a butterfly effect, a small flap of wings setting off chaos down the line.”
There’s a growing recognition that the gentlemen’s agreements that used to ensure constitutional stability have broken down.
We have seen that with the Brexit process. The current candidates for Speaker of the House of Commons (replacing current Speaker Bercow) all seem to recognise the need to clarify and update the inner workings of Parliament, following the recent prorogation saga. There’s an understanding that the legislative shut-down shouldn’t have had to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
More broadly though, the Brexit process has been impeded by the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality of previous elections and the ‘I will govern alone’ delusion remains strong among party leaders – even as their ‘traditional’ voting base slips away.
There has been a persistent tendency to treat working ‘across the divide’ as a betrayal. Yet three times in a row the system has failed to produce so-called strong majority government – making cooperation not just desirable but inevitable.
It is time for political reform that puts voters at the centre, including replacing the unelected House of Lords with a fairly-elected chamber, and ensuring representation in the Commons matches votes.
Westminster is now isolated among advanced democracies for having a totally unelected second chamber and using a decrepit, binary voting system. In fact, Westminster is isolated even in the UK – Scotland and Wales both use proportional voting systems and are as we speak reforming politics, whether through expanding the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales to involving voters in democratic reform through Scotland’s citizens’ assembly.
If we’re to truly restore faith in politics and move power away from the Westminster system, we have to move our processes into the 21st century. To open up those dusty corridors to the diversity, skills and experience of the country.
Politics has changed irreversibly. Westminster must change too.