Ten years on from the expenses scandal that rocked trust in our politics and nearly three years since this Brexit deadlock began, Britain’s broken political system remains largely unchanged.
No one can deny it: the health of our democracy is still failing. Westminster’s outdated, broken voting system and unelected House of Lords reinforce Westminster’s power-hoarding tendencies, leaving voters powerless and distant from where decisions are made, with no real say over who represents them.
New polling for the ERS shows that two-thirds of people (67%) feel they have very few or no opportunities to inform and influence the decisions made by MPs at Westminster – only four percent feel they have a lot of opportunities.
The need for a wholesale renewal of our democracy is now more urgent than ever. In our newly published report Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division, we set out a bold vision for how we can achieve a flourishing democracy where power is dispersed across political institutions and citizens are empowered and engaged.
The UK’s broken Westminster system lies at the root of most of the problems we see in politics today, from a lack of trust in our institutions to the toxic polarisation which paralyses policy-making. The pillars of the Westminster System: an all-powerful executive, constitutional flexibility, a weak second chamber, a two-party system propped up by majoritarian and disproportional elections – all have been exposed by the Brexit crisis. As a result, the façade of strong, stable government – the strengths on which the system has been lauded – has irrevocably fallen off.
Proceeding from this lack of structural integrity, comes the further problem of the political culture it creates. The Westminster System leads to deeply oppositional and two-dimensional politics which, up until the eleventh hour, prevented leaders from even speaking to each other about Brexit, let alone working together to find a compromise. It is a culture that emphasises and prioritises overpowering the other side – because it is a culture that lacks the basic decision-making tools of cooperation and negotiation.
Yet this is not how people think politics should work: our research shows that 64 percent of people think that our political system should encourage cooperation between political parties.
The failure of Westminster to function, even according to its supposed strengths, now calls for a fundamental rethinking of the system and the principles we want it to uphold. Westminster politics is characterised by institutionalised chaos and lacks the tools needed to perform effectively in a multi-party, volatile and values-driven era. Rather than continuing to patch up, cover up and press on with a system that – like the Palace of Westminster – is crumbling around our ears, it is time for wholesale renewal.
A new model for British democracy
There is broad cross-party agreement among voters that Westminster politics isn’t working. But there’s been little talk of how to fix it. So what’s next?
We need to shift the balance of power away from the centre to combat Westminster’s hyper-centralisation, and bring power back to the people. Citizens need to feel energised and supported by their democracy, but for this to happen, we need representative institutions which are responsive to people’s needs and spaces where citizens can directly engage in politics at different times and levels. Changing the voting system for the House of Commons is key, but there are other reforms that would strengthen our system.
There are two key pillars to our proposals. First, we need to rebalance power at the centre by reforming the unelected and undemocratic House of Lords so that it better represents the people and can legitimately perform its scrutinising and revising role. We believe that an elected House of Lords could serve as the forum where representatives from the UK’s nations and localities could gather to discuss national and cross-border issues.
Second, we need to bring power closer to the people and give them a genuine say in the future of their country and communities. Deliberative democratic processes can ensure that citizens are informed, are able to hear each other’s views in a reflective and respectful environment, and can make decisions that have a real impact.
These changes are not just institutional but are centred around a shift in our political culture. We need to reimagine our political system in order to achieve the institutional change we need and it is this change that will enable us to start doing politics differently.
Now is the time to rebuild our democracy on stronger and fairer foundations. Through this new vision for a better democracy after the Brexit vote we hope to show how this can be achieved.
Read the report: Westminster Beyond Brexit