Do you now live in a democracy? If you answered yes to that question how sure are you of that answer? It is easy to see that we have all the trappings of democratic government, but does that make it a true democracy? Let’s start with the dictionary definition of a democracy:
“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” (my emphasis)
OK, we elect representatives, called MPs, but is it truly a system of government by the whole population? Leaving aside that some people don’t vote, how much say do we actually have in appointing our “representatives”? For a start we don’t have any real say in appointing 775 of the people who play a significant part in the government of our country. I’ll come back to that later but already, with that simple statement, I have pointed out a major flaw in our “democratic” system.
If we lived in a true democracy then every vote cast at every election would count towards choosing the government we have. This is not the case. When it comes to the popular vote we haven’t had a majority government in living memory. Since the end of the Second World War the most votes cast for a single party was 49.7% of the votes in the general election of 26th May 1955. In real terms every government that has been formed has had less than 50% of the popular vote. That means that more than 50% of the population voted for a party other than the one that formed the government.
In more recent times, in the last 20 years for example, the highest proportion of the popular vote that has won an election has been 43.2% in the 1997 election. All governments with the exception of the present one have, technically, been minority governments in terms of the popular vote. In the last two elections the party with the largest number of MPs has secured 35.2% and 36.1% of the popular vote and in the previous two elections the share of the popular vote was significantly less than 45%.
Like it or hate it, the present collation government is the only one that has a clear majority, with a total of 59.1% of the popular vote going to the two parties that form the government. If Labour had succeeded in forming a coalition government that proportion would have slipped to 52%; it would be less democratic, therefore, than the one we have. In democratic terms every government since the end of the Second World War should have been a coalition if we are to satisfy the conditions of majority voting, rather than “first past the post” voting. Majority voting is government by the whole population, first past the post is not.
So why haven’t these been monoorty governments become coalitions? Because our electoral system isn’t actually democratic. We elect MPs, not governments. The party that has the most MPs then gets to form the government, not the party that has the majority of the popular vote. That’s fine if you actually support that party, but if you don’t then you might feel cheated.
Let’s face it, our political parties aren’t supported by the majority of the population. According to The Parliament website current party membership levels are estimated as being: Conservative 134,000; Labour 190,000 and Lib Dems 44,000.
Is that important? Yes it is, because those party members get to select the candidates that will stand as MPs. Thye also have a majopr part to play in the formulation of party policies. Less than 400,000 people, that’s 0.6% of the total population, get to make the most important decisions about who will govern our country and what they will do when they get into government. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that is very democratic.
Of course you could join one of those parties and increase the amount of say that you have, but you may not agree with everything they stand for. Indeed you may not agree with anything that any of them stand for. You may be one of the people who vote on the basis of "the best of a bad lot" or "I could never bring myself to vote for them so I'll vote for the other lot instead".
How does it work that so few people have such a great say in who we can vote for? That comes down to how election candidates are selected. The constituency party selection committees make the decision, and you have to be a party member to sit on the selection committee. Selection committees vary in size, but let’s say there are 5 members and a chair on each committee. We currently have 650 parliamentary constituencies so that means that the 650 MPs now sitting in the House of Commons were selected by just 3,900 people. Even that figure assumes that the candidates weren’t “parachuted in” by central office, so in reality the number who made those selections may well be lower.
The “democratic” bit of the election comes when we, the majority of the population, get to make a choice between the three or possibly four candidates that have been selected for us by the 18 - 24 people who made up the selection committees in our constituency. There may be independent candidates or candidates from finge parties that don't use the commitee selection process, but they rarely attract significant levels of votes so I will discount them.
We may get lucky, the selection committees may have chosen fine candidates who will do a good job for us, even if we don’t agree with their party’s policies on a range of issues. Or we may get a time serving nonentity who is just looking for an easy ride and who will only vote the way his or her party tells them to vote. They may do very little for their constituents or they may do a lot. It’s a lottery and we aren’t allowed to buy a ticket.
I live in the Daventry constituency, which is probably one of the safest Tory seats in the country. Since 1931 it has returned a Conservative MP at every election. The nearest thing that the constituency has ever had to a Labour MP was when Reg Prentice crossed the floor, leaving Labour to join the Conservatives in 1977. His reward for this act of betrayal was to be selected for the safe Daventry seat. So, if you are a Labour or Lib Dem supporter in Daventry you are effectively disenfranchised. Your vote means nothing. It won’t get a Labour or a Lib Dem MP elected and neither will it be counted as part of the popular vote to elect the government because that’s not how we elect governments. No doubt there are Conservatives who feel equally disenfranchised in safe Labour strongholds. Perhaps they have no real vote in whole provinces, such as Wales or Scotland.
If you are a socialist or a nationalist in Wales or Scotland then you may think there’s nothing wrong with that state of affairs, but I suggest you might like to talk to some of your fellow party supporters in Tory safe seats to find out how it feels to have no democratic power. Because this form of election is so popular in some areas it effectively disenfranchises people in others.
So why, if all our governments are minority governments in terms of the popular vote, don’t we have a different way of forming governments? For example why don’t we have coalition governments if the winning party doesn’t get more than 50% of the vote? The simple reason is that the two biggest parties like things just the way they are.
If you have to form a coalition it means having to make compromises on policy issues in order to secure a deal. We saw this when the present coalition was formed. Nick Clegg had to give ground on university tuition fees. The much heralded “British Human Rights Act” promised by the Tories never saw the light of day. It’s called horse trading. One party agrees to water down or even abandon a policy in order to gain the support of the other party, or in order to get a particular ministerial post. David Cameron didn’t look at the Lib Dems MPs in Parliement and say “Oh, what a talented bunch, I’ll offer them all jobs in my government.”
Nick Clegg had to do deals on his own party’s policies to get every Lib Dem seat at the table. In order to gain Lib Dem support and form a government Cameron had to water down or abandon Tory party policies. And neither of them told us which ones they had watered down or abandoned so as to avoid having to tell us they were going to break their election promises. That only became apparent later.
If you voted for those policies in particular then you were cheated because they sank without trace. The Lib Dem fury at Clegg’s abandonment of his party’s promise on tuition fees is a prime example.
On the other hand, if you want to form a government that’s not a coalition then you would have to have policies that appeal to more than 50% of the population so that they will vote for you. That’s a tough thing to achieve and it means that you have to go beyond what the people who fund your party might want and more than what your traditional supporters might accept. If you are Labour you have to appeal much more the high achieving middle classes and aspirational working classes. If you are Conservative you have to appeal much more to those on low incomes. There, in those two examples, you have the reasons why neither of the two main parties wish to mess around with the status quo. They don’t want real democracy because it may upset the vested interests that fund their parties or may upset some of their traditional voters.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rest of Parliament is even more undemocratic. We, the people, have only a theoretical say in the selection of the 775 members of the upper house, The House Of Lords. This is the part of government which, amongst other things, is responsible for scrutinising new legislation and making sure that it is legal, moral, ethical, enforceable and a whole lot of other things.
This august body includes 34 hereditary Peers and 26 members of the clergy. So 34 people get to sit in government over us simply because they had the right parents and a further 26 get the right because they belong to the right religion and managed to shin up the greasy poll of church politics. How many of these clergy are Roman Catholic? None. How many from the Church of Scotland or the Free Churches? None. How many are clerics from the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions? None.
The remainder of the Peers are appointed to their position through a system of political patronage. Only a handful (20 at current count) aren’t affiliated to any recognised political party and I suspect that those are either members of the clergy or hereditary Peers.
So how do you get to be a Peer? Theoretically anyone can nominate someone to become a member of the House of Lords. You can find out how on this website, but have you ever heard of anyone becoming a Peer that way? No, neither have I. Have you ever seen any sort of publicity that would encourage you to nominate someone? No, neither have I. So how do people really become Peers?
It is a popular resting place for many retired government ministers or party leaders. Do a barely adequate job, don’t upset the applecart, vote through the right lobby and retire when central office wants your seat for the latest rising star and you can have a seat in The House Of Lords. If you aren’t an MP then a bung to your party of choice is a good way to get in. Lloyd George practically set up a market stall to sell peerages and the tradition has remained ever since. The rest of the seats go to trades unionists, commerce, industry, media types;all staunch party allies depending on political bent. I have nothing against Baroness Joan Bakewell, for example, but would she have got her seat in the Lords if she hadn’t been a Labour supporter? Exactly the same can be said of Lord Melvyn Bragg. Choose your own Tory crony to fit this model. Would they be where they are now if they’d had to stand for election?
How many of these people would win their place in the Upper House if they had to stand for election? How many would even dare to stand?
The thing is, this group of 775 men and women aren’t representative of the population as a whole. Look at the hereditary Peers for a start. Hereditary Peers make up 4.4% of the Upper House, but what percentage of the population do they make up? It’s so small it’s hard to calculate.
The Lords is demonstrably unrepresentative in many other ways. It should be made up of 50% males and 50% females, but what are the actual proportions? 192 women out of 775 members. That’s less than a quarter. How many members are there from ethnic minorities? Just 60; way less than 10%.
The majority of those are of Pakistani or Indian origin or descent so the Afro-Caribbean community is severely under represented with only 20 Peers, or 2.5%, claiming that heritage of which only 7 are recorded as being of Caribbean descent. Disproportionally high, making up only 0.5 of the UK population, is the number of Chinese Peers at 3; however, this ignores the fact that there are far more people of Chinese descent in the UK than the aristocratic landowners that have 34 hereditary Peers representing them.
I was unable to find any data on gay, lesbian and transgender Peers but I’m guessing that they too are under-represented in the upper house. Labour Peer Waheed Ali was the first openly gay member of the House of Lords who became a Peer in 1998. The only openly gay Tory Peer is Guy Black who took his seat in 2010.
So, we have an upper house that is unrepresentative for many reasons and who we have no part in appointing for an important role in our society. Can you imagine any other country that would tolerate such an undemocratic state of affairs?
I’m not suggesting that the Peers should stand for election every five years like MPs, but to be elected once would not be too much to ask, with by-elections when they can no longer fulfill the role to which they have been elected. With a strict ban on party sponsorship, of course. They should be elected on the basis of what they are going to do for us, not which party they support.
When legislation is put before the upper house the government shouldn’t be able to guarantee getting it passed just because they have more Peers on their benches than the opposition has, and they shouldn’t be able to pack the House in their favour by appointing more Lords when it suits them or to get favoured people into government, which is what happened with Lord Alan Sugar, amongst others.
The final straw for this undemocratic organisation is that once someone is in the House of Lords you can't get them out, unless its feet first. Even in their dotage Peers can still vote on major issues of the day. Popular opinion can stop a footballer convicted of rape from plying his trade, but if that footballer were also a Peer he could still sit in the House of Lords. The House Of Lords Reform Bill 2014 allows for Peers to resign or be removed if they are convicted of "serious" offences. It also allows for the removal of Peers with poor attendance records. But how many have actually been removed? Guess.
The law may exists, but it isn't being used, so we still have Lord Jeffrey Archer, Lord Taylor of Warwick, Lord Foulkes and Lord Hannigfield sitting in the House of Lords. Lord Watson of Invergowrie was convicted of arson and imprisoned while an MP, kicked out of the Labour party in 2005, welcomed back in 2012 and was then elevated to the peerage. You couldn't make it up!
Again, neither major party is going change the status quo. We have seen that. Another Nick Clegg failure was to get his proposals for the reform of the House of Lords accepted. I have no idea if they were as radical as my suggestions, but they obviously didn’t find favour with David Cameron.
If candidates to become Peers can’t be supported by political parties then how would they campaign? Well, they would only campaign at constituency level which is far, far cheaper than trying to run a national campaign. Secondly they could be funded by a grant from central government, for which they would have to account. No donations from business or Trades Unions, or from anywhere else in fact. No donations to fund offices or staff. No funding by a political party or special interest group.
This would allow for strict control of how the money was spent: posters, leaflets, postage, hire of venues for hustings events etc. Out go the expensive PR teams, films for party political broadcasts, election strategists etc; all the things that cost lots of money. And the most important criteria of all – at the time of their nomination they must live in the constituency they want to represent, not be parachuted in from elsewhere. Perhaps even insist on a minimum term of residence before being nominated, just to prevent cheating.
The big change I would propose would be a minimum attendance time actually working in the House. No more just turning up, signing in to collect the attendance allowance and then going and playing golf or pursuing business interests. Theoretically this measure already exists but clearly isn't being enforced. They would have to spend a minimum amount of time actually taking part in debates or doing other work related to the job – and provide evidence that they are doing it. If not then the constituency should be able to recall them and call a by-election. We might then start to get some value for money from these people.
Of course it’s all hypothetical. Neither Tories nor Labour have any interest in real democracy so it will never happen. But we have to have dreams. In the meantime, don’t for one second believe you are living in a democratic country. It is only as democratic as our politicians want it to be, not as we want it to be.