William Wallace writes: How rotten is our democracy?

This is the question Isabel Hardman poses at the beginning of her review of Chris Bryant’s new book, Code of Conduct: why we need to fix Parliament – and how to do itHardman’s own book, Why we get the Wrong Politicians (first published in 2018 and updated for a paperback edition in 2022) had already covered much of the same ground – on the ‘toxic culture’ of Westminster politics, the power of the whips over individual MPs, the neglect of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation and decisions in favour of efforts to become ministers, and above all the strains on personal relations and family life.

Bryant – chair of the Commons Committees on Standards and Privileges until this month – writes in an easy, personal style, but his underlying anger at the corruption and the toxic culture of Westminster politics is evident.  He starts with the Commons’ handling of Owen Paterson’s censure for ‘paid advocacy’ for companies which were paying him more than £100,000 a year. 250 MPs voted to reject the Standards Committee recommendations, with support from Johnson as prime minister and Rees-Mogg as leader of the House.  ‘I felt that Parliament itself was on trial’ in that vote.

In the context of historical comparisons with past parliamentary scandals, he concludes that

This is indeed the worst Parliament in our history.  More than twenty MPs have been suspended or have left under a cloud.  Rules have been flouted… Ministers have lied and refused to correct the record…’  There is ‘a widespread sense that politicians believe the rules don’t apply to them.

He sees ‘something rotten’ in the structure of the Westminster system, with far more ministers than in comparable democracies, dependent on prime ministerial patronage.  Unchecked prime ministerial power allows corruption to spread through PPI contracts, through the allocation of levelling-up funds and through the appointment of friends to paid public offices.  He details the lies Boris Johnson as PM made to Parliament, the bullying habits of government whips, the conflicts of interest that arise through moves from ministerial office to private directorships and consultancies.  He reports the massive outside earnings that former ministers and PMs make – noting that in the first three months of 2023 Johnson registered £3,287,293 in outside earnings.

His remedies come close to Liberal Democrat policy.  ‘We need to look at the underlying structural problem in our British way of doing politics…the “Winner Takes All” system is at the core of our problems.’  Our voting system, combined with the government’s control of parliamentary business, leaves limits on executive authority dependent on the self-constraint of ministers – and that has broken down in the past seven years. ‘Parliament needs to rediscover its backbone and reassert its freedom.  Good government and better decisions depend on the proper exercise of power.’

The case for political reform – constitutional change – is now being made by a rising number of voices.  Huge numbers who listen to Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell’s podcast are hearing a similar message.  Anthony Seldon’s incendiary description of the chaos of Johnson’s government was serialised in the Times.  Theresa May’s memoir paints a critical picture of government, parliament and party, though largely excusing her own share of responsibility for the chaos she endured.  Lord Ashcroft’s latest analysis of public opinion for his largely Conservative audience reports that 72% of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Britain is broken – people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly, and we need big changes to the way the country works, whichever party is in government.”

Bryant does not take the stability of British democracy for granted – and neither should we.  A change to a Labour Government, almost as centralist and as committed to executive dominance as the Conservatives while cautious in repairing the weaknesses in our economy and society, could lead in a following election to a right-wing authoritarian populist alternative.  We should be making the case for a more open and decentralised democracy, and for stronger checks on executive power.  The depth of popular disillusion with politics as such is both a real danger and a potential opportunity for Liberals.  Can we turn it into an opportunity?

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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10 Comments

  • Mark Frankel 8th Sep '23 - 8:08am

    I wonder whether Chris Bryant’s case is a bit over-stated. If 20 MPs have been suspended or are under a cloud, that is only 20 out of 650, which is not a bad proportion of villains for any organisation. Parliament expelled the arch villain, Boris Johnson, while Bryant himself was part of the expenses scandal (does he mention this?). Notoriously, people are much more favourable about their own MP than they are about politicians in general. I’m unsure that structural changes are the whole answer although there is always scope for improvement. The main thing is to be careful how we choose our leaders, which I suppose is the point of Hardman’s book, about which it would be good to learn more.

  • David Symonds 8th Sep '23 - 7:52pm

    Labour and Conservatives are part of the problem as their support is based on class hatred and of negativity against the other party. The rotten FPTP voting system creates the adversarial system where millions of votes are wasted and the two rotten old parties have an exaggerated vote. The current system also benefits the Tories. I’m not convinced that Labour are committed to real reform and of course the Tories aren’t at all. Labour are wedded to corporatist and socialist ideas of nationalisation and are bankrolled by Trade Unions who are often antiquated and out of touch.

  • It’s highly questionable whether we are a democracy given the use of the blatantly unfair and anti-democratic FPTP voting system.

    Democracy is about more than “having a vote” – and, with FPTP, our elections fail the “free and fair” test that underpins democracy.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Sep '23 - 9:32pm

    “I’m not convinced that Labour are committed to real reform”

    Likewise

    “…and are bankrolled by Trade Unions who are often antiquated and out of touch.”

    Not as out of touch as the likes of Sunak.

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Sep '23 - 10:00am

    ” Labour are wedded to corporatist and socialist ideas of nationalisation”
    They used to be. Now ? They are neo-liberal thatcherites, just like the Tories used to be when they were sane.

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Sep '23 - 10:03am

    As for “Reform”. It’s more magical thinking. The Growth fairy and the Reform fairy will save bankrupt Britain. Just remember what happened with the NHS reforms under Lansley and look at the resulting mess. The only way to fix public services is to increase taxes. Or stop providing them, which is pretty much where the Tories are heading.

  • David Symonds 9th Sep '23 - 10:32am

    I have heard Labour and Conservative activists at elections talking to each other that they prefer each other to govern rather than allow other parties such as Lib Dems or Greens from running things. This bears out the rotten adversarial nature of our electoral processes and the way we are governed (at least with the national Parliament and Government) and the English local authorities. Tories and Labour like each other really as the red and blue “bogey” is used to frighten supporters to vote negatively.

  • Michael Cole 9th Sep '23 - 11:10am

    I agree with most of the article and comments, but time and again we are told that electoral and constitution reform are of little interest to the voting public, being of academic value only.

    The Labour leadership and the Conservative Party want FPTP to remain in order to retain their perpetual duopoly. It enables them to ‘Take the voters for granted’.

    Why are the LDs and our Party leadership not actively campaigning on this ?

  • Peter Hirst 9th Oct '23 - 3:31pm

    For our democracy to work parliament and government must have a degree of separation and independence from each other. Though members of government comes largely from parliament, once they move they lose the ability to hold the government to account. Parliament cannot be controlled by the government of the day so it can oversee the work that government does.

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