The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

Addressing our Democratic Deficit

The UK's dubious democracy needs radical reform. And, argues SAMUEL TURNER, we clearly cannot rely on the two major parties to bring that about.

By: Editor

It’s time to breathe life back into our politics. And for that we need to make bold changes to address our democratic deficit.

The UK General Election only a year away and Labour is – so far – storming ahead in the polls. You might be expecting jubilation from the British Left after its utter humiliation in the 2019 General Election. Instead, however, the left-wing media seem rather indifferent about the prospect of a Labour victory under Keir Starmer. As Brian Reade has put it in the Mirror: “If Keir Starmer has a vision, I’d love to see it”.

Indeed, post-Conference season, for many voters it would be a serious challenge to identify any meaningful policy differences between the Tories and Labour, who seem to have both converged on both economic and social policy, offering voters only a superficial choice. It’s Coke against Diet Coke. This is a problem directly attributable to our first-past-the-post electoral system, which encourages tactical voting, but leaves voters never really getting what they want from either of the two main parties.

As has been discussed on SDPTalks before, but which nonetheless is worth repeating, a far better system would be to have Proportional Representation (PR), where electoral subgroups are represented proportionally in Parliament. Under this system, both the Soft Left and Hard Left could have their own respective parties, with there likely being two right-wing parties to choose from as well. Some argue that PR would lead to weak government, since no one party will have a majority and a coalition government would have no single mandate. I wonder though if these people have been watching the current Conservative government – unable to fulfill many of its manifesto promises despite winning an 80-seat majority in 2019.

Given this demonstrable failure to deliver, I would argue that PR is a better system for holding larger parties to account. Under PR, tactical voting would be unnecessary due to smaller parties having a much larger voice in Parliament. This would not only scare the larger parties into delivering but would also hopefully lead to a more interesting and diverse political conversation, with more radical economic and social reforms being proposed. Additionally, under PR every vote will count. There will be no “safe seats” where voting Conservative or Labour is pointless. This in itself would go a long way to reducing political apathy, particularly among young and working-class voters among whom voter turn-out is particularly low.

Yet it would be wrong to attribute this country’s democratic deficit solely to first-past-the-post. Another obstacle to radical reform is the House of Lords, which sees its job as to oppose, stifle, and sufficiently water down government policies. It is, as is so often somehow overlooked, completely undemocratic. Even worse is the fact that the House of Lords is unaccountable, with life peers being appointed by the Prime Minister, sometimes in exchange for significant party donations.

Indeed, according to The Times, Starmer has pledged to “flood” the House of Lords with Labour Peers. Much like the European Union, the equally undemocratic House of Lords would surely also be rejected by the British people if the question of abolition was put to a referendum. But rather than replace the House of Lords – as Labour proposes, with an elected “upper house of nations and regions” – we should instead opt for a unicameral system with one house for one United Kingdom.

Of course, the argument made against having one house will be that an upper chamber provides checks on the power of the House of Commons, refining the legislation, on occasion bringing valuable expertise. Yet the trade-off here is that having an upper chamber frustrates the passing of legislation, often leading to slow, inefficient government policymaking.

Even with a democratically-elected upper chamber, the issue remains in that the very role of an upper chamber is to frustrate or even block the passing of legislation – often leading to political gridlock – against the wishes of the people. That’s not just in the UK. In the United States last year its upper house, the Senate, blocked legislation which would have codified the right to an abortion into federal law. Having a democratically-elected upper house would, it seems, very little difference to its freedom to frustrate the will of the people. Instead, the UK should join other European countries, like Denmark and Sweden, whose unicameral parliaments consist of only one house.

Of course, if Labour wins by a landslide, then Starmer is unlikely to want to give up such a large majority by introducing PR. It is also unlikely that there will be a referendum on the House of Lords when Labour has already said that it will either replace it with an elected upper house or give it a comprehensive Labour do-over. As much as those on the Left may hope, radical democratic reform is not going to happen under a Labour government. Instead, there must be a cross-party movement for constitutional change.

Radical reform is the only way to breathe life back into our democracy. The party that realizes this and acts upon it will surely be rewarded by voters.

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All Comments (4)

  • I could not agree more with Samuel Turner about the need for change in Britain the British system could learn a lot from the German Lander Federal System as well as a Written Constitution and eventually becoming a Federal Republic, I would not bet on Keir Starmer’s Labour becoming our next Government the Party internal strife over Israel and Palestine as well as Antisemitism will only benefit Rishi Sunak who I could see the Conservatives pulling off a surprise election victory,I prefer a Social Democratic Government maybe one day

  • Good article.
    The existence of the devolved parliaments/assemblies/mayors could also be said to function as a check on the UK house of commons!
    These First Ministers and Mayors seem to go out of their way to interfere on national issues whether it is covid or israel/palestine.
    Today with David Cameron appointed as Foreign Secretary and Life Peer it is even more clear that democracy needs reform in this country.

  • The 4 useless parties maybe optimistic about their electoral chances at the General Election at the end of next Year 2024,I don’t know anyone wants these people in Office, Rishi Sunak is on borrowed time his Party will remove Him sooner rather than later,Keir Starmer is another nohoper who has zero personality or Charisma lead’s a Shadow cabinet who makes Sunak’s ConSocialists look like rank amateurs in comparison North of the Border We have the SNP led by a man who is no Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond, the voting system needs to be replaced with Proportional Representation, Britain needs to be Federalised and the Govermental system decentralised and becoming a Federal Republic with a codified Written Constitution

  • Well. More UK/GB wanting political parties, like SDP being a part of the democratic system. Not pro-devolution political parties ie. SNP, Plaid Cymru, Alba, etc that want to divide & end this country.

30th October 2023

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