New report from the ERS: Reviving the Health of Our Democracy

After months of independent research, the Electoral Reform Society has now published a report on Reviving the Health of Our Democracy. On the plus side, we discovered that most people are as politically charged as ever, albeit mostly through individualistic modes of participation such as single issue campaigns. The downside, of course, is that they feel less and less like their political ideas and aspirations can be reached via traditional representative democracy. Turnout at most sets of local elections is now below forty percent. Even more alarmingly, last year’s Hansard Audit of Political Engagement discovered that the percentage of people who said they were sure to vote at the next general election fell below fifty percent for the first time to forty-eight percent. When less than half of the eligible demos turns up to vote, the legitimacy of the outcome is bound to be questionable. As we saw in Eastleigh, all of this can be exploited by smaller parties – the UKIP vote rose by over twenty-four percent comparing the by-election to 2010. Old alliances and loyalties appear to be crumbling.

While the disintegration of traditional party allegiances presents an opportunity for the Lib Dems, it also carries with it inherent risks. The party could get swept away with it all as well, particularly now that it is a party of government, and the danger of things not breaking the party’s way are particularly alarming under a First Past the Post voting system which is bound to introduce ever increasing randomness into general election results, particularly with the rise in the vote of other parties such as UKIP and the Greens. Add on top of that ever decreasing turnouts and the acuteness of the problem becomes even more apparent.

There is still widespread faith in representative democracy – people just want it to work better. Our report sets out several areas for discussion. Firstly, we need to clear the path to politics to ensure quality of access. The House of Commons needs to be “of the people” in order for voters to gain any sense that parliament works for them. All of the parties, including the Liberal Democrats, need to look at selection policy to ensure we have a Commons that represents 21st century Britain. Secondly, we need to improve the outcomes of elections so that every voice is heard equally. I’d start with proportional representation for local government – it is achievable and most of the arguments used to support First Past the Post fall by the wayside at local level. And that brings us neatly onto my final topic, which is about returning real power to local democracy. While most people like the idea of this, quite how to do it and what form it takes is another matter. Labour spent thirteen years in power without coming up with the definitive answer. The Tories built much of their 2010 election campaign around it in the form of “the Big Society” – but have had trouble turning that idea into concrete policies.

We’d love to hear your ideas around what needs to happen to revive local government. Email us at campaigns[at]electoral-reform[dot]org[dot]uk if you have something to say. In the meantime, you can check out the whole of the Reviving the Health of Our Democracy report here.

* Nick has worked for the Electoral Reform Society for eighteen months, working across all political parties handling public affairs, parliamentary liaison and press for the ERS.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and the Head of Partnerships and Public Affairs at the Electoral Reform Society.

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8 Comments

  • Matthew Doye 15th Mar '13 - 12:57pm

    Local government is over regulated from the centre, Ministers and their departments seem to take every opportunity to aggregate more power around themselves.

    Liberal Democrats should look to counter this tendency by seizing opportunities to devolve authority to councils and assemblies. We should promote the benefits of local government, of decisions taken closer to the people. We should do more to find the best candidates and provide them with the best resources to make local government work.

  • “All of the parties, including the Liberal Democrats, need to look at selection policy to ensure we have a Commons that represents 21st century Britain”

    Thinking we can resolve this by changing selection policy is really just wishful thinking. The problem is, with current massively negative attitudes towards all politicians, the possibility of having your private life splashed all over the newspapers, the lack of job security, the need to spend huge amounts of time campaigning for election, and the comparatively low pay relative to the responsibilities of the job, who is going to be able to or want to become an MP? The pendulum has swung too far against MPs for it to be a desirable option for many competent, qualified people with experience outside politics that they could bring to bear in Parliament.

    In my constituency, which is far from being a hopeless case in terms of starting from over 30% of the vote, we had one female candidate at the selection hustings and another female candidate from an ethnic minority who withdrew before the hustings. The single female candidate was selected but has now withdrawn, leaving us to start from scratch. With the MPs’ salary being not much more than average for this (above averagely prosperous) area, many eligible people are unlikely to put themselves forward given the sacrifices they will have to make in the rest of their lives.

    That said, you are absolutely right in saying that PR (specifically STV) is the way to go locally. It will open up the field hugely and allow us to expose the arguments against electoral reform for Westminster as being bogus.

  • paul barker 15th Mar '13 - 4:29pm

    Agree that PR for local Government should be in the next manifesto along with local Income Tax. Councils can never be really local till they pay mostly for themselves & voters can see how much money is spent locally.

  • Richard Harris 16th Mar '13 - 9:00am

    I don’t think we are working nearly hard enough to develop systems that collect people’s opinions. Any system that relies on a single vote to represent all the issues is heading for frustration. I think people accepted the single vote approach a century and more ago as the only practical way to canvas opinion, but we live in an age of internet forums where people can express themselves within seconds of an event breaking. At election time, why cannot I vote for a representative, but then also express what I think his/her priorities should be so my representative cannot be in any doubt what their electorate (and therefore their mandate) consists of?

  • Nick Tyrone 16th Mar '13 - 9:52am

    Matthew – you are absolutely right that governance in the UK is over centralised and that moving power to a more local level is desirable. As I mentioned, both Labour and the Tories have been trying for years to come up with something around this that works, is politically viable and is above all sensible. Their collective failure to do so shows just how difficult this is. Devolution of power to a more local level sounds fantastic but how would it work in practice? Ask ten people and you get ten completely different answers. Should we try and professionalise councils by having less councillors who are paid more? Some people love this idea, but it is fraught with all kinds of political problems – if you’re an MP, your councillors are an important part of your activist base during elections. Withering away at that would be unpopular amongst parliamentarians. If we devolve more power to councils, would that require the councils hiring in advisors to handle the work load (possibly at considerable cost to the taxpayer)? That wouldn’t be universally popular either.

    So yes, devolving power away from the centre is a fabulous idea and one whose time is well overdue (the UK is the most centralised country in western Europe). The trick is: how?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Mar '13 - 8:40am


    On the plus side, we discovered that most people are as politically charged as ever, albeit mostly through individualistic modes of participation such as single issue campaigns.

    Which turn out to be very ineffective. The shift of people being involved in political parties from people being involved in single issue campaigns is a shift from the democratic to the aristocratic mode of government. It is a move from the idea that people can chose those amongst themselves who are to act as their government to assuming that government is composed of some separate class of superior people who are there by right, so all ordinary people can do is beg and plead with the ruling class in the hope that somehow just maybe their heart-strings may be sufficiently tugged for them to grant concessions.

    The shift from active involvement in party political electoral campaigning towards involvement in single issue campaigns has coincided – but I do not believe it is a coincidence – with the shift of politics to the right. Without mass membership political parties on the left, the right will always have an advantage because it has money and influence to campaign with so it has less need for members.

    The history of our party has shown that electoral politics CAN change things. That individuals coming together and fighting elections CAN challenge assumptions. That votes CAN count. Our history involves coming back from near electoral extinction to winning councils and Parliamentary seats in places which were assumed to be naturally and forever held by one of the two big parties. When we have done this it has almost always been because a relatively small number of people have out effort into doing it.

    I think we need to promote our party as being about this. We need to talk about democracy and how it works, and about the role of political parties being to bring people together in order to challenge the power of those who rule by wealth and influence. This idea has now been completely lost. Most people think of political parties as top-down organisations, fan clubs for their leaders, whose members must just do what they are told.

    The rise of single issue campaigning and the fall of party political membership has coincided with constant calls for parties to be more “professional”. This almost always means more centralised and less human. We are told that parties must be sold like some sort of consumer brand concocted by professional ad-men and public relations people, and convinced into accepting this on the grounds it is what “wins votes”. So how come we keep on doing what we are told will make us more popular, but with the result that political parties have all become much less popular?

  • Simon Banks 9th Apr '13 - 3:58pm

    Nick:

    Labour and the Tories have not been trying to devolve power for ten years. They’ve been talking about it.

    Yes, there’s a confusing variety of options, but that alternatives are workable is clear from the experience of other medium-to-large-size democracies. An excellent example because it works and because it’s a country quite similar to ours, is Germany.

    But to devolve power is to take on powerful vested interests at national level. That’s the problem.

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