Politics should be about the people – it’s crucial we secure democratic reform

While Labour strategists will tell you that nothing can be taken for granted, the bulk of the media and much of the rest of the Westminster bubble has already declared Labour the winner of the next general election.

With still probably one year to go before the voters get a look in, it is striking how much the opposition is able to set the political agenda. Journalists remark on the sense in which the opposition now seems to be making the political weather, as if this happens entirely independently. To paraphrase Boris Johnson, ‘the herd has moved’.

Cheered on by wealthy donors, the two big parties will spend the next year battling it out over a tiny slither of the electorate, quickening the pace of democratic disenchantment. Yet behind closed doors, much of the (so-called mainstream) media herd has already staged its own private coronation of Sir Keir Starmer and is now engaged in jockeying for access to the party they are sure will form the next government.

And, on one level, you might think ‘fair enough’. But obscured by the media’s ‘laser-like focus’ on electoral conjecture are the voters. Politicians work for us, and yet somehow, too often, our interests are mediated through the presumed winners and losers of an imagined election.

The Mid Bedfordshire by-election is the same story in microcosm. All the focus is on the horse race, on which challenger has a better claim to the seat. Sidelined are the feelings of voters about the first genuinely competitive election in their constituency for a generation – one in which all voters can be confident their vote will make a difference to the outcome.

Opinion polling and surveys can help us fill in some of the gaps: we know that people feel as if politicians are all the same, that their vote doesn’t change anything. We know how, when presented with the option of an electoral system in which all votes count, or a House of Lords that is accountable, people are eager for change. And we know how repelled most residents of Mid Beds were by the contempt shown to them by Nadine Dorries. This is replicated across the country.

But if we are serious about doing something to address the sorry state of our democracy, the challenge is clear: how to work together to ensure the voices of the people do not get drowned out between now and the next election.

The Liberal Democrats, to their credit, are a party that has long put democratic reform at the centre of its platform. But as election day draws nearer, the temptation for all parties to close ranks will grow.

Instead, we must remain prepared, without fear of diminishing our party loyalties, to come together from all parties and none, and speak with one voice about defending our democracy.

The campaign groups invited by Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform to this weekend’s Conference fringe – Compass, Make Votes Matter and Unlock Democracy – offer different models for how we can unite people cross-party to demonstrate the breadth and depth of public demand for a different way of doing politics. But we journey to the same endpoint, a politics that trusts people and ensures they have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

We are assisted in this by the fact that democracy is starting to be seen as a first order issue by those outside the democracy sector. There is a growing recognition that we can’t reach net zero or close the inequality gap with a democracy that isn’t fit for purpose.

The next election might grant the Liberal Democrats an opportunity to affect the policy of the next government. More than a supporting cast member, in this scenario the party must not back away from its commitment to democratic reform. A fair voting system must be a red line in any negotiation with Labour, closely followed by commitments to scrap photo voter ID, draconian anti-protest measures and Lords reform.

If collectively we are to achieve substantive democratic reform in the next parliament, we must escape the tendency to view politics as a battle between parties. Politics should be about the voters, and Parliament should look like grown-ups respectfully figuring out how best to collaborate to represent their constituents’ wishes. By reminding ourselves and everyone else that democratic reform is above all about empowering the people, we can help ensure that party interest, and doing the right thing for our democracy, are not in conflict.

Tom Brake, Klina Jordan and Neal Lawson will be appearing on Sunday 24th September at a fringe event organised by Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform alongside Christine Jardine MP. Full details here.

* Tom Brake is Director of Unlock Democracy and a former Lib Dem MP, Klina Jordan is Chief Executive of Makes Votes Matter, Neal Lawson is Executive Director of Compass.

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3 Comments

  • Perhaps we need a different approach to building a democracy in which all participate. At the moment we have little influence on the government of our nation. We have rather more on the government of our own party. Perhaps starting with a review of how democratic we are would be a good starting point.

  • David Symonds 22nd Sep '23 - 9:00am

    The two party system is exacerbated by the discredited First Past the Post voting system which assumes that the electorate only have a red and blue opinion, nothing else. The House of Commons is adversarial and stale and the two old parties hate each other but prefer each other to win rather than see Lib Dems or Greens or other parties have any say or opinions. The only way we can change things is to ensure STV in all elections and that will only happen if there is a hung parliament. FPTP works against that. Incidentally Labour will hope that the Tories can hold Mid Beds and Tories will hope that Labour win Mid Beds rather than see LD win.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Oct '23 - 5:16pm

    While not decrying attempts to improve our voting system perhaps we should move the goal posts to campaign for something even bigger. This government has shown that the previous rule book of convention has been completely destroyed and will not be mended for a decade or more. We could if we feel it appropriate talk about a wider and deeper change to our governance. A proper codified constitution could improve more than the way we vote and perhaps the time is right to win that argument.

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