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A proportional voting system is the first step in fixing our broken democracy

A proportional voting system is the first step in fixing our broken democracy

The majority in the Lords reflects the view expressed by the majority of voters, who did not choose a Tory candidate in last year’s general election, writes Baroness Bennett. | PA Images

5 min read

The Tories won just 44% of the vote in 2019, but effectively hold 100% of power in the Commons. That’s not democracy, it's fundamental illegitimacy – and the lack of trust that flows from it – is at the root of our broken system.

When I talk to most Britons now, they’re bemused, confused – and angry. How can our government be so chaotic, incompetent, and clearly failing?

It would be easy, as a person inside politics, to blame the individuals in charge, who are very much on the opposite side of the political spectrum to me.

And, of course, they can’t escape responsibility, from Boris Johnson on the disastrous privatised track-and-trace to Gavin Williamson on A-level results.

But taking a look at what informed outsiders – non-Britons – say about Westminster's failure is informative. 

First, there’s a widely shared, impressively researched article from The Atlantic, concluding “the British system was broken long before coronavirus struck” with “failures built up over years”. 

“In the past two decades, the list of British calamities, policy misjudgments, and forecasting failures has been eye-watering: the disaster of Iraq, the botched Libyan intervention in 2011, the near miss of Scottish independence in 2014, the woeful handling of Britain’s divorce from the European Union from 2016 onward.” 

Then there’s a smaller piece from Politico, which asks why mask-wearing has become such a hot, and contested, issue, at least in England. It quotes the respected historian Jeremy Black: “In Britain, the adversarial notion of politics is one that may well make the British ungovernable.” 

That reflects a conclusion that Oxford University’s Stein Ringen reached nearly a decade ago in his excellent Nation of Devils

The Whig view of history, that Britain had arrived at a perfect constitution through an almost mystical process of accidental evolution – always the story for those doing very nicely indeed from the system – is clearly dead and buried.

But there’s more. In a swollen, indefensible list of appointments to the House of Lords, the government drove that message home.

Whether that was intended as a “dead cat”, to distract from Covid-19 failings, or a simple Dominic Cummings nose-to-thumb gesture to a House that he can’t control as he can the Commons, is hard to know. Quite possibly both.

But it also delivers a further message.

If parliament is not accountable to the people, then that isn’t going to produce a stable, functional system.

For we have an unelected House of Lords ridden with 18th-century style patronage with remnants of the medieval inheritance system, but these appointments draw attention to the fact that this House is more representative of the country than the Commons.

In the Lords, when they chose to exercise the power, it is not Boris Johnson who calls the shots, but the non-party crossbenchers, people who are respected, who’ve achieved their position on some form of merit, even if the achievement was in the fields of law or medicine or campaigning or academia rather than politics.

They have the balance of power. When they side with opposition parties, the government can be – and is – defeated.

The majority in the Lords reflects the view expressed by the majority of voters, who did not choose a Tory candidate in last year’s general election.

With 44% support from those who voted, the Tories won an effective 100% of the power in the Commons.

That’s not a democracy. And that fundamental illegitimacy – and the lack of trust that flows from it – is at the root of our broken system.

If parliament is not accountable to the people, then that isn’t going to produce a stable, functional system.

In places such as Germany and New Zealand we have seen how there is an alternative. In these countries, governments can speak honestly and frankly to their people, can reflect uncertainties, acknowledge missteps, and be all the more respected for it.

Those governments – which represent a solid majority of their people – don’t have to rely on Trump-style clinging to empty, clearly nonsense phrases like “world-beating” or “world-leading”, said bombastically while thumping the table, a style that will always appeal to some. Both Germany and New Zealand have their Boris Johnsons, but they’re fringe, marginal figures.

But, as the Make Votes Matter organisation points out from the last election, when 56% of voters didn’t choose the party we're now governed by, there’s a 30% chance people voted voted tactically for someone they didn't believe in and a 71% chance their vote didn't affect the outcome, you don’t need to appeal to a majority.

Just like Trump – in the broken US system where he lost the popular vote and won the presidency – you can appeal to a minority and win.

And the majority won’t trust you – something only amplified in the UK by the role played by the innocent tourist town of Castle Barnard – in our political life.

That’s why the coming weekend is a particularly important one. 

MPs and peers might currently be prevented from holding the government to account by a recess – astonishing at this time of national crisis, as Martin Kettle points out – but Saturday is Make Votes Matter’s Demand Democracy Day

This will bring the national focus on to the key problem of making the UK a democracy, with a modern, functional constitution, which has to start with a fair, proportional voting system, where the number of seats matches the number of votes.

It’s often suggested that a problem with winning reform is that “the turkeys won’t vote for Christmas” – those now inside the system won’t act to change it.

But it is time for those “turkeys” to stand up and be counted. What the UK needs is democracy, and it needs it now, and anyone in politics has the responsibility to show their support for Make Votes Matter on Saturday.

Constitutional reform might not be the top phrase on the public’s lips, but fixing our broken government, making it actually work, is certainly top of their concerns.

 

Baroness Bennett is a Green Party peer.

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