UK democracy needs radical reform, but there’s little evidence our leaders are ready to take up the challenge, writes Alun Drake.
I’m a great fan of jokes involving defective light bulbs. Here’s an example: how many climate change deniers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: none, because they claim it’s too early to tell if the light bulb is really broken.
My all-time favourite in this series goes as follows: how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb must want to be changed. For me, this is so much more than a punchline. It can apply to many everyday situations, like an alcoholic refusing to accept they have a drink problem.
It also applies to the UK, because the country seems to be suffering from delusions of democracy.
Gandhi was once asked what he thought of western civilisation. He replied, ‘I think it would be a good idea’. We can say the same thing about British democracy.
An unelected head of state, an unelected upper house, a lower house elected by an unfair voting system, no codified constitution and the most centralised state in Europe is hardly a stellar CV for a modern democracy. Neither is a right-wing media establishment dominated by press barons who don’t even live in the UK.
In my book Fixing Broken Britain: A Blueprint for National Revival, I call for a major overhaul of our political institutions, including quitting Westminster for a modern parliament building, replacing the Lords with a standing citizens’ assembly, drafting a codified constitution, adopting proportional representation for national elections and giving local authorities much more autonomy. These reforms are not ‘nice to haves’ but essential prerequisites for a vibrant democracy.
Sadly, there is no sign that our leading politicians even recognise the country’s democratic deficit, let alone feel the need to urgently address it. In fact, the two main parties are either ditching proposed reforms, or reversing ones already enacted.
Less than two years ago Labour promised to scrap the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber, as part of plans to “restore trust in politics.” The new house would retain the scrutiny and oversight role of the Lords but would be “truly representative” of the UK’s regions and the nations.
Now the party has reneged on this radical commitment, settling instead for modest measures such as trimming the number of hereditary peers and introducing a new appointments process.
At its 2022 annual conference in Liverpool, the party approved a motion “to introduce proportional representation for general elections in the next manifesto,” and committed a future Labour government to changing the voting system for general elections to a form of PR during its first term in office.
However, Keir Starmer said he would ignore the vote, and there is next to zero chance of the party including a pledge to PR in its manifesto.
Compared with Labour, the Conservatives are much less keen on reforming our political institutions. Nevertheless, it was David Cameron who introduced the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011. This obliged governments to hold parliamentary elections every five years and brought the UK into line with neighbouring democracies like France and Germany, where election dates are not chosen on a Prime Ministerial whim to maximise their electoral prospects, but scheduled years in advance.
The discipline the FTPA was meant to impose lasted exactly six years. First Theresa May in 2017, then Boris Johnson in 2019, circumvented the spirit of the Act to take the country to the polls at a time of their choosing. It was formally abolished in 2022.
The Elections Act of the same year hit the headlines for its controversial voter ID requirements and attempts to rein in the independence of the Electoral Commission. But it also changed the voting system for mayoral contests in London and metropolitan areas like Birmingham and Manchester.
It replaced the Supplementary Vote (SV) system with a return to First Past the Post. This opens the way for mayors to be elected on a minority of the vote and makes it much harder for popular independent candidates to compete.
Perhaps most depressing of all, MPs intend to repair and restore the crumbling Palace of Westminster at vast public expense, rather than build a state-of-the-art, zero carbon parliament for a fraction of the cost elsewhere.
The cheapest renovation plan, involving moving everyone out for between 12 and 20 years, would cost between £7 billion and £13 billion. The most expensive solution, keeping the site active during the works, would cost up to £22 billion and take 76 years.
Given that the price tag for a new build parliament would be unlikely to exceed £1 billion, the decision to mothball Westminster should be a no-brainer, combining financial common sense with more favourable political optics (do voters really want to see more spent on a single building than it cost to build Crossrail?).
A country whose parliamentarians prefer nostalgia and tradition to cost-effectiveness and modernity is unlikely to successfully navigate the huge challenges facing the UK in the 21st century.
Returning to jokes about light bulbs, here’s one of my own.
“How many British politicians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: none, because they all agree that the light bulb is still working wonderfully well”.
If that turns out to be true, then the joke really will be on all of us.
- Alun Drake is the author of Fixing Broken Britain: A Blueprint for National Revival
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