It shouldn’t have had to be resolved this way. But the Supreme Court’s ruling against prorogation last week highlighted how Britain’s constitutional arrangements can leave parliament weak in the face of an overbearing executive. And it was the latest sign that the gentleman’s agreements that used to pass for our constitution have now broken down.
The roots of these problems are contained in our outdated Westminster system – excessive executive power coupled with the winner-takes-all mentality – the type that stokes the polarising rhetoric we’ve heard in recent days and encourages a focus on the minority of voters needed to pass the finishing line.
What’s behind the current crisis? The party system is fragmenting and has been for a while. The last two general elections were the most volatile – seeing the biggest movement of people between parties – since 1931.
And new political divides have come to prominence – not only Brexit, but on the climate, internationalism and more. These shifts are causing the binary system to malfunction. As Professor Sir John Curtice has noted: “There is little doubt that Britain’s traditional two-party system is facing its biggest challenge yet in the wake of the Brexit impasse. If that challenge persists it would seem inevitable that there will renewed debate about the merits of the first past the post electoral system.”
All democratic systems have trade-offs. The Westminster system’s 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. In other words, an undemocratic and therefore weak chamber retained 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 per cent 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 a handful of votes, 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 hordes power at the centre. As system so stuck in the past that there are still seats reserved in our second chamber for male aristocrats.
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 per cent feel able to ‘fully’ influence decisions by MPs at Westminster, according to 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 from 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.
This blog is based on a speech by Dr Jess Garland, from the ERS and Fabian Society event at Labour party conference on 23rd September.
Read the ERS’ recent Westminster Beyond Brexit report here.