Improving the quality of democracy is not just about proportional representation

Of all the major ‘-isms’ that pervade our politics in the UK, democracy (or ‘democratism’ if you prefer) is perhaps the least written about. That may at last be about to change.

It is perhaps mostly taken for granted in UK political discourse that democracy is ‘A Good Thing’. Today, only the very brave would argue publicly that democracy is ‘A Bad Thing’ per se.

Defenders of UK-style democracy however have to gloss over aspects of the political system. These include the constitutional monarchy and the broader role of the Royal Prerogative, the unelected House of Lords, and tight executive control of parliament. They do rather mute the UK’s moral high ground when promoting democracy abroad.

There is further discomfort among those who have argued that democracy is good because it leads to economic prosperity. The Chinese example is often given as a case where the absence of democracy is a key factor in economic ‘success’. This illustrates the problem; why does Western media emphasise one-party-rule in China in economic success rather than the more important role of expanded economic freedoms over 40 years, and removal of state monopoly privileges ?

This raises the question of what democracy is really for.

Is the purpose of democracy to make dictators look more legitimate, to mollify a restive population, to choose between competing oppressors, to help those who want to ‘change society’ believe that society wishes to be changed, to limit the excesses of the established authorities or entrenched vested interests, or is it for public opinion to have minor influence over decisions that affect them ?

Perhaps it is time to be more overt about this; that the purpose of democracy is to ensure that governmental authorities are focused on the wishes of the citizens. This idea makes modern democracy more about genuine problem-solving from a citizen perspective; the citizens change the government and not vice versa. This has become especially important given anti-democratic sentiment arising from such Chinese economic success, Russian assertiveness, and the underlying tenets of pervasive US Neo-Conservatism.

What’s more, the rise of the mafia-ised oligarch state and the druglord state highlight the role of higher quality democracy in ensuring that the ‘good folks’ are in charge; as does Ponzi-esque global finance (eg Enron, Sackler, FTX & OneCoin, Theranos, Worldcom, Archegos, WeWork, Madoff, Lehman …),

How do we know in any country whether there is high quality or low quality democracy ? We must look at the building blocks. For example a country with low education & literacy, a secretive cronyist state and monopolised media is likely to be less democratic than one with high education, transparency and extensive media pluralism. I have listed a range of building blocks.

* A properly representative voting system absent of gerrymandering exclusions
* An impartial and independent judicial system and government subject to the law
* Elected institutions having full control of governance in a known constitutional framework
* Separation of powers, and checks and balances on executive functions
* Codified human rights including ‘innocence until proven guilty’, and key equalities
* Transparency and presumption of disclosure, with limits on security & commercial confidentiality
* Accountability of individuals & institutions; with financial, cost/benefit and procurement clarity
* Education systems which promote human capital (skills), critical thinking, & academic freedom
* Absence of economic, social, and political monopoly, with key related freedoms enshrined in law
* Media freedom, competition and contestability
* Freedom of assembly, expression, travel and civic participation
* Subsidiarity; financially autonomous sub-national governmental institutions & local decisions
* Full scrutiny of international obligations and treaties
* Fiscal rule transparency and limits to the ability of government to engage in pre-election largesse
* Robust conflict of interest and anti-corruption rules, and limits to undue political influence
* A welfare safety net

Improving the quality of democracy is not just about proportional representation, therefore. There is great scope to pivot our modern politics towards democracy as a central (and popular) idea.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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30 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 10th Jan '23 - 6:35pm

    “Separation of powers” is an interesting one – are we really saying that democracy requires a separation between those who are members of the government and those who are members of the legislature?

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Jan '23 - 7:04pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    On the separation of powers issue…

    At present it seems quite a large number of tory MPs are also government ministers – I’m not sure how many.

    If a resident in a constituency where the MP is also a minister has a problem of the sort which needs the MP to help sort it – can that resident rely on their MP to deal with the issue totally independently of their role as a government minister? Personally I’d be disinclined to trust an MP in that position to act in my interest if that interest does not accord with the government’s position.

    Yet the rule is that the resident cannot ask another MP to deal with their problem – they are stuck with the government minister who supposedly represents them.

    And if we’re considering separation of legislature from government then perhaps the judiciary need to come into this discussion as well.

  • Peter Davies 10th Jan '23 - 7:48pm

    The answer to having an MP who is both willing and able to represent you is STV. In a five member seat it is very likely you will have a representative who is local, shares your views and is not on the payroll.

  • Chris Williams 10th Jan '23 - 8:10pm

    Commonly known as a recipe for Gridlock.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Jan '23 - 8:42pm

    @Peter Davies
    STV goes some way towards addressing the problem. But suppose your 5-member seat has 3 tories 1 labour and 1 LD member and you are normally a tory supporter. It could be that all 3 tory members are on the government payroll.

  • George Thomas 10th Jan '23 - 9:10pm

    I’m tempted to argue that we have an illusion of democracy in the UK. Sam Coates (Sky News) is currently promoting his investigation into IX Wireless as one of the larger donators to the Tory party and, my conclusion from his work, how it doesn’t seem to exist.

    A company which doesn’t seem to exist having direct say on UK democracy whereas voting system locks out so many, and those who aren’t locked out are let down by poor education and horribly biased press, is not example of a healthy democracy.

    The idea that current government and main opposition are so opposed to nation leaving said democracy and setting up their own system is not an example of a healthy democracy.

    How bad must it be in rest of the world if this is the “mother of all parliaments”?

  • Paul Reynolds 10th Jan '23 - 11:22pm

    Thank you. The ‘separation of powers’ features in many national constitutions, most notably the USA (although in that case there has been much erosion of the principle). A judiciary which is independent of parliaments and the executive branch is oft considered a necessary feature for democracy to exist. Politicians and officials should not be able to determine the outcomes of court proceedings, for example. The executive should only be able to make legislation with the content of the legislative branch. And so on.
    I agree on the ‘illusion of democracy’ idea. That is why I have a suggestion of the different ‘purposes’ of democracy. However, sometimes the illusion idea is presented in such a way as to imply that democracy is a kind of on/off with; there is either democracy or not. ‘Not’ in this sense is hard to remedy. For a remedy it is best to see democracy as a spectrum, with legitimisation of dictatorship at one end and citizen-focused democratic processes at the other. The building blocks I set out (or something like them) provide a way to evaluate where a country is on the spectrum, and what reforms need to focus on, the UK included.

  • I don’t think that the House of Lords should be elected. The role of a second chamber is to improve the quality of decision making not to reflect public opinion or challenge the Commons.

    The Lords needs reform but it would be a huge mistake to replace a chamber with many leading experts in their field with an elected chamber which could have a large contingent of politicians from populist parties such as Reform UK.

  • Gordon Lishman 11th Jan '23 - 9:05am

    Perhaps it would help to clarify things if we went back to the concept of “liberal democracy” as a type of democracy distinct for instance from plebiscitary or majoritarian.

  • Paul Reynolds 11th Jan '23 - 11:40am

    Defending the continuation of the current UK second chamber is certainly a challenge. Most of the arguments about retention of the current unelected system are arguments about the benefits of a second chamber per se (eg more expertise, more time to scrutinise poorly drawn legislation, a focus on enquiries or investigations of key problems, regional perspectives … ) rather than arguments in favour of the second chamber being unelected. If the argument is that the House of Lords if elected would have ‘competing legitimacy’ with the House of Commons, then it is rather an admission that the House of Lords lacks legitimacy ! What’s more lots of countries have all-elected bicameral legislatures without all the problem claimed for an elected second chamber. What is unique on this planet about the UK that, unlike the rest of the world, makes an elected second chamber such a problem ? The Labour Party has proposed reform and an elected second chamber, (albeit as part of its decentralisation programme … and lacking detail). Given the likely outcome of the next GE it looks quite likely to be implemented. This rather steals a march on the Lib Dems, but progress is progress.

  • William Wallace 11th Jan '23 - 12:06pm

    At present there are 140 MPs who are part of the government, as ministers, whips, PPSs (and trade envoys – a new form of patronage and potential dismissal for dissenting). That’s 22% of the Commons membership. We don’t need as many ministers, especially if local and regional government are revived. Yes, we need a second chamber to scrutinise Bills and investigate difficult issues; I think it needs to be substantially an elected house in some form, perhaps with a smaller proportion of appointed members. The Coalition/LibDem scheme was a reasonable one, sabotaged by Labour as well as Tories.

  • Nigel Quinton 11th Jan '23 - 2:30pm

    An excellent piece (as always from Paul) but I question the headline. It suggests there is too much focus on electoral reform. Whilst he is right to highlight all the other failings of our illusive democracy the prize of electoral reform is one that we must not lose sight of. With Labour finally getting on board (at every level below the shadow cabinet at least) now is the best opportunity in years to get a commitment to PR into the manifestos of Labour, LibDems and Greens at the very least.

  • David Garlick 11th Jan '23 - 2:52pm

    @Chris W. Politics is only gridlocked when there is no compromise.
    The scale of change on its way from Climate Change will require local, national and international compromise on every issue.

  • Peter Hirst 11th Jan '23 - 3:57pm

    Why is electoral reform so important to imiproving our democracy? My response might be that it would broaden the section of the electorate necessary to gain support from to win power. Our type of representative democracy has its weaknesses so it should be supplemented by deliberative processes. It will only be truly representative when everyone has a say or at least an equal chance of having one.

  • Paul Reynolds 11th Jan '23 - 4:18pm

    Thank you Nigel. I confess that the headline wasn’t mine, but that doesn’t detract from the key points. I did however consent to it, so mea culpa !

  • @ Paul Reynolds: The Lords has legitimacy as a debating and revising chamber only. By convention it does not challenge the Commons on many issues and backs down where there are disagreements but an elected chamber would not be so cooperative.

    There are many examples of second chambers that are not directly elected e.g France, Germany, Spain, Canada and Ireland. Where they are elected there is often gridlock eg USA, Australia and Japan.

  • The second chamber question is really irritating to watch. Those who say that election doesn’t give rise to problems obviously haven’t see US politics over a long enough time frame.
    The LibDem’s idea in the coalition was also bad. It fails to understand that a less “legitimate” chamber is a positive, that requires it to make really good arguments. It would not need to be appointed to do this. There are many ways this could be achieved but there is an obsession in political parties with creating more political positions. The current model is bad, most proposed alternatives are worse.

  • The size of the “payroll vote” would be significantly reduced if there were more ministers who were not member of either chamber of parliament but had the right to attend and take part in debates, but not vote. If only Cabinet member had to be members of one chamber then that would reduce the dominance.

  • Paul Reynolds 12th Jan '23 - 2:08pm

    We shall have to see the detail of the Labour Party proposals if the recommendations of its report are accepted, and respond accordingly. Given the decentralisation objectives of which Lords abolition forms part, it seems likely that the Netherlands approach (indirect election from the provinces) may influence the proposals, perhaps combined with elements from Irish or French style indirect election via electoral colleges. Indirect or direct election from regions or provinces features also in India, Germany and Pakistan. It is difficult to determine whether it is the directly elected feature or electoral systems more generally that is the cause of apparent ‘bicameral gridlock’ in the USA, Australia or Japan. Certainly there was a two year period of gridlock in Japan 2007-2009 but this was more a problem of their proportional representation system. (Gridlock is an oft-used argument against proportional representation). Having an unelected second chamber does not prevent gridlock, of course, as our relatively recent and continuing experience with Brexit has shown. It is very likely that if the Labour Party proposals reach the statute book, there will be a long period of transition. There’s something of a tongue-in-cheek idea going around that 50 or so Lords will automatically go into the new ‘Senate’, being the top 50 activist Lords with fewer outside interests. There are certainly more than 50 Lords that work very hard and are effective at holding government to account, so one might hope that this idea does not survive. Starmer’s team also seem determined to address the use of Peer status to further business interests, lobby or provide gateway services in accessing civil servants, following their public opinion research. It is worth following Labour proposals as they develop.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jan '23 - 5:25pm

    I do think the focus should be on what a 2nd chamber should be doing before getting on to its membership. Some SMART objectives needed.

  • “…democracy is not just about proportional representation…

    Agreed! Governance is hard, requiring great technical and management expertise of just about every sort. The great challenge is to keep that expertise working in service of the Public Good (although exactly what that comprises is itself a contested concept) so government doesn’t degenerate into a gravy train for insiders at the expense of the rest of us.

    PR lowers barriers to entry for challenger parties which promotes competition, which is good in moderation but, like most things, not when taken to excess because that gives extremist views a platform (see Israel for how that works).

    So, LibDems have always looked at election results and concluded that ‘PR would have delivered more MPs’. That’s undoubtedly true and explains why many see PR as the Holy Grail.

    But… The LibDem core vote is uncomfortably small with perhaps half of LibDem votes really for ‘none-of-the-above’. Those voters are, by definition, dissatisfied with the established parties (including LibDems), and therefore prone to defection to the new alternatives PR enables.

    Hence, PR was an initial godsend In European elections, IIRC initially yielding two seats in the SW alone but eventually just one nationally. In Scotland PR helped the SNP’s, not LibDems. And the Coalition (a PR-like outcome) was hardly a triumph!

    I suggest LibDems should take long hard look at their party, especially assumptions about how it should work, and the thrust (not detail) of policies. The future beckons.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jan '23 - 7:29pm

    The “convention” of the Lords not challenging the Commons applies principally to manifesto commitments of the party that won the last GE. It’s worth noting, though, that Lib Dem Peers don’t appear to consider themselves bound by it. This may be because as a party we consider the government itself to lack democratic legitimacy as it was elected on a minority of the populat vote. Another reason is that Lib Dems don’t particularly care for the House of Lords as it is constituted and have no wish to help it keep going. And gentlemen’s agreements only work when all those involved behave like gentlemen, which is something that the Tories in particular cannot be trusted to do.
    In any case, the question of balance of power between the legislative chanmbers is far too important to be settled by “convention”. It needs to be enshrined in law. Of course, manifesto commitments can’t be made legally binding (besides being totally unworkable, it would be inmcompatible with the principles of representative democracy and a sovereign Parliament). If an elected 2nd Chamber can torpedo primary legislation from the HoC, then I don’t see any problem with that. If you consider “gridlock” to be a problem, it suggests a mindset that supposes that the government, once elected, should never be challenged.

  • The US Senate was not established as a revising chamber so direct comparison with the House of Lords, elected or otherwise is incorrect. The US constitution established two chambers for reasons to do with democracy on the one hand and states representation on the other. And whilst both houses have to agree new laws, there are functions reserved to each house. The Senate has to agree many presidential appointments, including judges, cabinet members and a slew of others. The gridlock that so affected the Obama second term was nothing to do with having two chambers but with party politics, with the Republicans determined to prevent Obama appointing more Liberal judges to the Supreme Court and setting the scene for challenging Roe V Wade.
    Any reformed second chamber in the UK will need to have its powers and functions clearly defined and this would best be done in the context of a written constitution, which would also set out clearly the roles and functions of all layers of government and not leave it to ‘conventions’.

  • @Gordon: What helped the SNP wasn’t PR per se but the particular implementation of AMS in the Scottish Parliament, which lacks provision for overhang seats as exist in the German system. Obviously the SNP would have gained an absolute majority in Parliament sooner under FPTP.
    The reason the Lib Dems did so badly after the Clegg-Cameron Coalition was the way the party leadership of the time handled it. Previous coalitions (in the Scottish and Welsh devolved authorities) had been successful for us.

  • nvelope2003 13th Jan '23 - 3:34pm

    Alex Macfie: Previous coalitions between the Liberals and other parties in Scotland were with the Labour Party which is a centre left party. The UK Coalition with the Conservatives
    in 2010 failed because it was with a Right Wing party when many of its voters were Labour supporters who had voted Liberal/Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out and felt totally let down, particularly the younger ones. Can you supply any examples of coalitions between the Liberals/Lib Dems and other parties since the rise of the Labour Party after 1918 when Liberals benefitted except when they delayed the abolition of Free Trade in 1923 by supporting Ramsey Macdonald’s minority Labour Government but then collapsed in 1924 from 159 seats to 40 of which all but 7 were won because one or other of the 2 larger parties did not put up a candidate in the other 33 seats and the Conservatives obtained a comfortable (225) majority as they did in 2015 (30). The National Government of 1931 which followed the period when the minority Labour Government of 1929 was supported by the 59 Liberal MPs resulted in a further split in the Liberal Party as the Free Trade supporters left the National Government when it introduced tariffs with the support of the National Liberals.
    The problem with coalitions for the Liberals is that half of their supporters are inclined to the Conservatives and the others to Labour or the Greens now so to keep their voters happy they must avoid coalitions at all costs. Supporting a close arrangement with the EU seems their best chance of gaining seats.

  • @ Alex Macfie – Those are fair points.

    Yes, the SNP would have won under FPTP, but LDV word limits don’t allow space to properly explore issues. And yes, the LDV leadership made a spectacular mess of things. To campaign on ‘No more broken promises’ and then to break the biggest plus a bunch of others is, ahem, astonishing.

    My main aim was to point out that, however desirable, PR is not the high road to success. (Ditto other constitutional reforms).

    We are at a turning point; the Thatcherite/neoliberal ‘project’ of the last 40+ years has failed badly in a second winter of discontent which will be much worse than the first for it coincides with epochal events. The risk of things going very, very badly wrong are huge IMO.

    Early responses to the looming crisis have included the SNP and Brexit but neither tackles the real issues so it’s an open goal for whoever comes up with a way forward. I see two key challenges for LibDems.

    Firstly, to rethink the party’s foundational organisational assumptions. It’s obviously not fit for purpose at present. So, what can we learn from how the ‘Nasty Party’ routinely beats the ‘Nice party’? And how do we become sufficiently nimble and politically savvy to lead change?

    Secondly, to break out of the straitjacket/Overton Window of the last 40 years and more and create a new paradigm for a society of fairness, opportunity, security, and justice.

  • Err, ‘LDV leadership’ should read ‘LD leadership’.

    A subtle difference perhaps but an important one!

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