Opinion: The Tories are downgrading democracy (and the Lib Dems are letting them do it!)

On electoral reform and the Coalition, the Lib Dem narrative goes something like this: “Nick Clegg presented an inspiring, comprehensive reform agenda to make voting fairer. Then Cameron came along and cherry-picked it. He rejected some of our ideas, but accepted others, including fixed-term parliaments, Lords reform (in principle), and, er, the AV referendum. Taking our usual view that half a loaf is better than no bread, we signed up. What’s wrong with that?”

What’s wrong, I suggest, is that we didn’t stop to think about Cameron’s own agenda, and what the Tories actually aim to achieve from their “reforms”.

The number of MPs is to be cut, ostensibly to save a few quid. But since Cameron has also hugely increased the size and cost of the House of Lords, this rationale looks doubtful. Cutting MPs also shifts the balance between the payroll vote and the reduced number of independent backbenchers who could become rebels. So it increases the power of the ruling government, and downgrades the power of democracy.

Parliamentary constituency boundaries are due to become less natural, less well aligned with local government boundaries, and more liable to ongoing change in the future. All this could readily be avoided with a slight relaxation of the eye-wateringly tight restriction on size variations to no more than 5%. The Coalition has set its face against any such relaxation. It seems they prefer to downgrade democracy.

Recent proposals to abolish compulsory electoral registration – and thus make it easier for people to avoid fraud checks or simply give up voting through apathy – could see millions of mainly non-Tory voters drop out of the system. Nick Clegg says he is minded to scrap these proposals. We shall see.

Fixed term parliaments were certainly a Lib Dem Good Idea. However, we proposed them largely to impose stability in the “hung” parliaments which were likely to arise with a fairer voting system, to prevent minority governments constantly re-throwing the electoral dice, and to promote effective coalition-building. We also thought four years was a fair compromise between stability and democratic oversight. Cameron preferred five years. He also spent a fortune to make sure there would be no fairer voting system. Once again, Coalition reform will amount to downgrading democracy and weakening the checks and balances on Government power.

A rich party, bankrolled by the rich, will naturally prefer infrequent elections on a predictable timescale. This helps them win by careful planning, financial firepower, issues management and manufacture, and clever advertising messages such as the “link” between AV and Papua New Guinea. Poorer parties, such as Labour and the Lib Dems, stand a better chance when elections turn on unpredictable events, real issues, and popular engagement. Thanks to Coalition “reforms”, there will be less chance of that in future.

Democracy isn’t just the battlefield on which we fight. It’s also a weapon – in the hands of individuals and communities, facing powerful vested interests in business and government.

We are the party which believes in a vibrant, effective democracy, precisely because that plays into the hands of those who support individual freedom, civil liberties, and the rights of the “99%” against the entrenched power of the “1%”. With appalling misjudgement, we have agreed an alliance with a party which is systematically planning to downgrade our democracy. And what’s more, we have agreed to help them do it!

* David Allen is a Lib Dem member in Rushcliffe.

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26 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Oct '11 - 1:33pm

    This seems to be just a variation on the theme of “anything that makes the world as a whole better is unfair because it primarily favours the rich and powerful who are more able to enjoy it”.

    I’ve never accepted that as an argument for not making things better.

  • mike cobley 29th Oct '11 - 2:04pm

    David – the party’s principles should be a fortress to be defended, not mere tokens to be traded away for second banana government posts. The Liberal Democrats need to rediscover their inner social democrats, and sadly that isn’t likely to happen until the Clegg experiment with its outdated 19th century liberalism (AKA proto-toryism) comes crashing down in defeat and ignominy. Keep your powder dry.

  • “Parliamentary constituency boundaries are due to become less natural,”

    I was campaigns officer in Somerton & Frome. I then moved to Calder Valley. Don’t tell me that constituency boundaries under previous proposals represented any sort of natural entity.

  • Foregone Conclusion 29th Oct '11 - 2:55pm

    “Democracy isn’t just the battlefield on which we fight. It’s also a weapon – in the hands of individuals and communities, facing powerful vested interests in business and government.”

    What bigger vested interest is there than a government that can choose the time of the next set of elections for its own advantage?

  • I am not a Liberal Democrat but I agree completely with your analysis. Yet again, the Tories have hi-jacked a liberal agenda for their own purposes of cutting costs, removing the opposition and abolishing those institutions over which they cannot achieve control through the electoral process.(C.F. the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority and the GLC). Once again, the Liberal Democrats have been conned. Given the projected huge increase in the UK’s population it is nonsense to suggest that the country needs a dramatic reduction of representation in the House of Commons. It has been done simply to reduce the size of the seat mountain the Tories failed to overcome at the last General Election.

  • paul barker 29th Oct '11 - 7:52pm

    Fixed-Term Parliaments have already had enormous, largely un-noticed effects on our Political life. “Everyone” inside the Westminster Bubble now realises it would take extrordinary events to bring down the Government, Journalists are already moaning that Politics has become “boring”.
    One obvious side-effect is to make Back Bench Rebellions much more likely but most important is that Voters have realised they can now think even less about Politics than they did before. That makes Voting Intention Polls even less use as a predictive tool.
    The bad News for us is that we can expect our VI Poll figures to continue to look bad at the same time as our Leader Approval figures tell a different story. The Good News is that Labour will continue to believe that we are finished, getting a nasty shock as our Polling recovers in 2015.

  • Grammar Police 29th Oct '11 - 10:12pm

    @ David Allen
    Did you not see in our election manifesto the plan to cut the number of MPs by 100?
    And your argument of effectively “the wrong type of fixed term parliaments” reminds me of what train companies say when there’s no trains . . .
    As for individual voter registration, there’s a fair amount of evidence that it reduces the potential for fraud, and yes, I share your concerns about the end of compulsory registration, but do think the ‘fear’ that non-Tory voters would drop off the register is rather overplayed – such people are probably unlikely to vote at all (which in itself is a bad thing). A more important point is that the electoral boundaries will be determined by the size of the electorate – and Clegg has said that the original plans were wrong on ending compulsory registration.

    The truth is, David Allen has had an axe to grind against Nick Clegg since he was first elected Lib Dem leader – and we’ve seen him at it time and time (and time) again on Lib Dem Voice’s pages. This is yet another attempt to have a pop, this time with a effort poorer than usual.

  • Thanks for all the responses.

    My argument is that Cameron and his allies are systematically downgrading our democracy by taking several parallel actions in different fields. I do find it dismaying how many people seem to think that if they can find a flaw – whether real or imaginary – in just one of the many points I am making, then they can sit back with a sigh of relief, and dismiss the whole embarrassing argument.

    Hywel points out that we already have some constituencies which do not particularly make sense as geographically cohesive areas. Well, that’s true. But the new proposals will create far more such constituencies, and will probably also cause massive further changes in boundaries at subsequent revisions. They will therefore make things worse, in that they will increase the sense of disconnection between MPs and their (temporary) constituents. They will therefore reduce respect for, and interest in, parliamentary democracy. So – does your point really take us anywhere, Hywel?

    Rich “fails to see” how equalising the sizes of constituencies can mean downgrading democracy. Well, Rich, it the way it is to be done that is the problem. Yes, the Tories were quite entitled to do something to get rid of gross differences in constituency sizes, and to get rid of the pro-Labour bias in the old system. But they didn’t have to insist on variations no bigger than 5%. It was explained to them at great length by boundaries experts that a limit of 7.5% or 10% would just make it far easier to organise sensible constituency shapes, with mainly reasonable fits to geography and local government regions. The more this was explained to them, the more determined they were to stick with the 5% figure. My contention is that they actually decided that it would be a great idea to do away with stable, sensible constituency shapes. Think of all the Lib Dems who have worked hard for years to turn target seats into winners. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to chop all those seats into little bits, and get rid of all those incumbent Lib Dem MPs!

    A number of people argue that even under first-past-the-post, fixed term parliaments are a good thing. Well, that’s as may be, but it misses the main point I am making, which is that Cameron chose a five-year fix. That means fewer elections. That, along with unnatural constituencies, frequently shifting boundaries, fewer MPs, and voluntary registration, means downgrading our democracy.

    Foregone Conclusion suggests that the PM’s present power to call a snap election when he chooses is the biggest “vested interest” in existence. Well, that’s a little bit hyped-up FC, but yes, you have a point. However, Paul Barker makes a more important point: that fixed term parliaments make a huge difference to political life between elections, because it then becomes virtually impossible to bring down the Government. No longer need a PM listen to criticism, make concessions to fend off rebellions, or worry that defectors might prematurely bring him down. A fixed term parliament greatly stabilises the PM’s position and increases his power to govern unchallenged. That’s why Cameron has voluntarily embraced the idea. He’s not stupid, you know!

    Lastly, Grammar Police thinks it’s a clincher to point out that our manifesto called for a cut in the number of MPs. Frankly GP, I don’t care a flying flip what our manifesto said, I care about what is or isn’t a good idea. (Or is the argument you are making that our manifesto writers were surreptitiously sidling up to the Tories, ahead of the election…?)

    And finally, GP correctly notices that along with millions of others, I don’t approve of the way the party is now being led. It further dismays him that there are so many mistakes in so many different fields that can be criticised – in economics, education, the NHS, and now even in the field of parliamentary democracy as well. He rates my post as “poorer than usual”. I await with bated breath the time when he decides to rate a post of mine as being better than usual! I would just point out that if loyalist Lib Dems are looking for a way to win back all their lost friends and influence people – Well, bile ain’t going to do it for them.

  • Lib Dem Member 30th Oct '11 - 8:18am

    What about an elected House of Lords? Our main reason for wanting fixed-term Parliament is nothing to do with hung Parliaments; it is to do with stopping any Prime Minister from calling an election on a date of their choosing, because they think they can win it. Our reform to registration is two-fold. It is good that we are making individuals (rather than landlords and heads of household) responsible for registering. Should we also make registering non-compulsory? Should it actually be a criminal offence not to register? What about those who genuinely do not want to register? Part of me understands about under-represented groups being further disenfranchised. But lots of such people already fail to be registered, and when is anyone ever prosecuted for this under the current system? Another part of me thinks that if some people are too stupid to realise why democracy matters, then I don’t want them voting anyway. I mean it – if people choose to ignore letters about registering and advertising campaigns about it, and don’t register, then that is down to them. Living outside the system is partly a matter of choice. The disenfranchised masses, unable to use a pre-paid envelope to return a simple form that has been delivered to their home? Give me a break.

  • Hi Lib Dem Member, do you think that politically parties should ignore the disenfranchised or encourage them to engage with politics?

    I can understand why some parties may see electoral advantage in abandoning the disenfranchised (Tories) where others have an interest in encouraging them to vote (Labour), what is the Lib Dem position? Is it one of principle, or one of cynicism?

    Secondly, do you think that UK governments should act in the interests of the country, or their voters?

  • When Clegg withdraws the Liberal Democrats from the Coalition because of fundamental disagreements over Europe, despite the lock of undemocratic, five year fixed term parliaments, the Tories will be unable to govern and will have to go to the country for a mandate.

  • If we look historically at every time that parliamentary boundary changes, there are always cries of “shame”, “fix” and “gerrymandering” thrown at the Government of the day by the people who perceive themselves to be losing out – often in spite of the evidence that the process was actually fairer. This happened in 1974, 1983, 1997 and 2005 – and probably happened in 1918 and 1945 as well – yet at each one of these elections, the boundaries were like now placed in the hands of an independent commission and resulted in boundaries which, overall, gave a fairer result than the boundaries that existed before.

    (For the 2005 boundary changes the Tories even accused Labour of gerrymandering – despite the fact that, quite properly, the boundary changes had actually resulted in a net *increase* of seats for the Conservatives!)

    Let’s remember that equalising the size of constituency boundaries is a basic democratic principle that goes back all the way to the Chartist movement of the 19th Century. It is absolutely right that each individual vote should have the same individual value. (Whilst we would obviously like a fairer voting system to go with it!)

    Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that a 7.5% quota would result in boundaries that were significantly different. Taking an extra rural ward in or out of a seat (say) isn’t going to make much difference to it’s overall coherence – whilst it would have a negative on electoral equality. This is clutching at straws.

    There will of course be areas that will be unhappy with the proposals in their area. This is particularly going to be the case now that the decision has been made to allow constituencies that straddle county boundaries, which may well result in a major shift in boundaries in counties.

    But just because change in one area is unsatisfactory doesn’t make the system itself broke – and when no proper evidence is adduced that there are systematic problems other than “we don’t like it in Bloggstown, so it must be an evil conspiracy by a party we don’t like to destroy our community”, the futile gesture of throwing around these accusations every time we see a proposal that negatively impacts upon us does politicians and our society no credit whatsoever.

  • “A rich party, bankrolled by the rich, will naturally prefer infrequent elections on a predictable timescale.”

    If Cameron’s changes made parliaments more unstable and on average shorter, you would argue that this favours the wicked Tories because they are richer and able to fight more frequent elections. You clearly assume everything the Conservatives do is machiavellian and designed with evil intent. Drop the paranoia please.

  • David Allen 30th Oct '11 - 4:53pm

    Ed T,

    You begin badly by putting words like “evil intent” into my mouth. Presumably because you couldn’t effectively have a go at me on the basis of the words I actually used.

    What I assume is that the Conservatives (and also Labour, and also the Lib Dems) generally give a pretty high priority to their own party’s self interest, whenever they consider whether or how the rules of our democratic system should change. You appear to think that this is an unreasonable and indeed “paranoid” assumption. Frankly, that’s just denialism.

    Once upon a time, insults against the Tories were ten-a-penny in this party. Now, even individual blog posters all seem to be bound by a code of omerta. Guys, you just don’t realise how creepy it make you look!

  • Tony Dawson 30th Oct '11 - 5:06pm

    “Did you not see in our election manifesto the plan to cut the number of MPs by 100?”

    I did, but the idea was that the cut in numbers was meant to be linked with AV. Without AV, fewer constituencies (especially ones with strange artificial boundaries) makes it more likely that big party candidates will win than at the moment ie things will be LESS democratic. With AV, the chances of a minority-supported party getting an overall majority at a General Election would have diminished, and parliament would be more representative, even with fewer MPs.

    It would have helped if there had been a referendum on AV rather than one about ‘cheating MPs’ versus ‘Nick Clegg’. But we’re stuck where we’re stuck. Shame there was not linkage of the two issues in the Coalition agreement. Perhaps a few more days checking the small print might have helped? But we’re stuck where we’re stuck.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Oct '11 - 5:12pm

    “Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that a 7.5% quota would result in boundaries that were significantly different.”

    Well i bet you have never been part of a breakthrough win in a target seat. I do despair about armchair politicians.

    PS. Allowing variations of 6.5 -7 per cent would actually make significant differences to the creation of many ‘sensible seats’ as would allowing a much lesser emphasis on keeping to local government ward boundaries as ‘building blocks’, many of which have already been subject to artificial equalisation processes themselves.

  • nigel quinton 30th Oct '11 - 6:39pm

    I found David’s article well argued and despair of some of the knee jerk reactions to it above. Certainly there may be flaws in his arguments in detail, and yes, some of the things he complains about were in our manifesto. But that is not the point he is making, as far as I understand it. the point is that the Tories are winning time and again on the bigger picture. We may get a few of our policies through, arguably even the 75% of our manifesto that people are so keen to shout about, but on the whole my perception is that Cameron is running rings around us.

    The whole point of our constitutional reform agenda was that the current system was broken and that we needed to start again. The proposal was that we embark on a long term cross party approach to finding a better way that would include a fairer voting system, more powerful local government leading to a reduced need for so many MPs, an elected second chamber, fixed term parliaments. Not an easy thing to deliver without a parliamentary majority I agree, but what we have ended up with is piecemeal reform that on the whole does favour the rich Tories more than anyone else, as David observes.

  • From Paul Barker – “The Good News is that Labour will continue to believe that we are finished, getting a nasty shock as our Polling recovers in 2015.”

    On which planet is this likely to occur? – not this one.

  • David Allen 31st Oct '11 - 1:45pm

    g asked:

    “I can understand why some parties may see electoral advantage in abandoning the disenfranchised (Tories) where others have an interest in encouraging them to vote (Labour), what is the Lib Dem position? Is it one of principle, or one of cynicism?”

    I think “Both” would be a good answer. We should be persuading the young and the disadvantaged that voting for us will make a difference, take on the bankers, oppose futile wars, etc. Always assuming, of course, that we stick to policies which will appeal to these constituencies.

  • “”Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that a 7.5% quota would result in boundaries that were significantly different.

    Well i bet you have never been part of a breakthrough win in a target seat. I do despair about armchair politicians”

    @Tony Dawson
    Actually I’ve been very heavily involved in target seat campaigns over the years and am anything but an armchair politician – but thanks for making presumptions. (I’m staying anonymous because I’m a former member of staff)

    We all worked damn hard in the target seat I was part of – and I’m well aware of how difficult it is and how much work is involved.

    The reason I don’t think that a 7.5% margin would make much difference is because its not the reason why boundaries are changing so rapidly. That reason is that we are now having constituencies that cross county boundaries – coupled with the increase in size.

    That means some major changes – with up to 40000 electors being moved around in some cases – and faffing around with 2000 electors here or there in that situation is not going to affect a majority more than a couple of hundred votes. In a very tight fight – yes – that’ll make a difference to the outcome, but its hardly the magic bullet to solve all the boundary commission’s woes that the author sells it as and to then infer some grand political conspiracy from a refusal to do it – as the author seems to do – is positively ridiculous.

  • David Allen 1st Nov '11 - 12:18am

    “The reason I don’t think that a 7.5% margin would make much difference is because its not the reason why boundaries are changing so rapidly. That reason is that we are now having constituencies that cross county boundaries – coupled with the increase in size.”

    Yes, but the reason why constituencies now have to be allowed to cross county boundaries is to enable the 5% rule to work!

    “That means some major changes – with up to 40000 electors being moved around in some cases – and faffing around with 2000 electors here or there in that situation is not going to affect a majority more than a couple of hundred votes.”

    Create straw man, knock him down, brilliant. It isn’t about 2000 electors here or there, it’s about the major changes on the 40,000 scale, it’s about the need to do it all again in another ten years, it’s about destroying incumbency.

    “to then infer some grand political conspiracy …….is positively ridiculous.”

    No conspiracy. Look, if Alex Salmond celebrates Burns Night, talks about independence, and waves a saltire, we don’t talk about grand conspiracy, we just see a consistent pattern of political behaviour. And so it is when Labour build up state power, and so it is when Tories downgrade democracy.

    (Oh, I know I don’t really have to spell this out to you. You know it perfectly well. You’re just one of these people who thinks it’s easier to try to laugh your opponent out of court than to find a genuine counter to his arguments.)

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