how do we increase participation in our democracy?

Despite a long history of democracy in this country, we have a democratic problem. For years now engagement in politics has been in decline, and turnout in elections has fallen. What’s more, trust in politicians has probably never been lower.

The Hansard Society, in their 2013 audit of political engagement, found that only 41% of people would be certain to vote in the event of an immediate general election, a figure that tumbled alarmingly to just 12% among young people. Even at the last general election, one of the closest fought in recent times, turnout was 65%. Put another way, over a third of registered voters didn’t bother to actually vote. It also means that of all those who could have voted, less than a quarter backed the Prime Minister’s party and only 39% voted for the parties that formed the coalition.

And as for those who were elected? The Hansard Society found that only 22% of people can correctly name their MP, and only 23% are satisfied with the way that MPs do their job.

Our MPs must themselves take some of the blame for this – the expenses scandal, and most recently the pronouncements from Boston and Skegness MP Mark Simmonds hardly help. But if we are going to mend our democracy, we need to make it relevant to everyone. Somehow we need to show that politicians are not all the same, and that by participating in democracy people can actually make a difference.

A glaringly obvious problem, and in my view something overdue for major change, is the voting system itself. A first past the post (FPTP) method may have suited the old two party system, but it is not sufficiently democratic for a multi-party system. What’s more, it produces results that help reinforce the decline in political engagement. I say this because most parliamentary seats are considered safe; and in many of these the winning MP is elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. Take where I live for example, unless you vote for the posh, public school educated conservative, your vote, like mine, is effectively wasted. There may be more of us who prefer other candidates, but we are stuck with one from the party that always wins. So is it any wonder then that people don’t seem that enthusiastic about democracy? Indeed, unless you live in one of the 100 or so parliamentary seats that are considered marginals, you really have no ability to bring about change by voting.

Clearly increasing participation in democracy will not be easy. Over the years there has been all sorts of suggestions, from allowing voting at the local supermarket, to lowering the voting age. Change is certainly needed so here are my own suggestions (but not necessarily with all the answers) to strengthen democracy and increase voter engagement.

1. Introduce proportional representation (for all elections): By this I mean a genuinely democratic system such as the single transferable vote (STV). This will certainly mean very few one-party governments, and it will require more co-operation between parties, but it will also mean more genuine choice at the ballot box. Indeed, STV has a number of advantages:

  • STV motivates political parties to contest every seat and there would be no area they could afford to ignore.
  • STV elections cannot be won by influencing only a few swing voters in marginal seats.
  • Under STV, MPs would be more accountable to voters.
  • STV can give voters a choice of candidates within a party.
  • Because STV lets voters list candidates in order of choice, they never need to waste their votes or vote tactically.

2. Reform the House of Lords: The Lords is so undemocratic it beggars belief. There may be no new hereditary peers these days, but the party leaders can still stuff the Lords with their friends and party donors. We need a fully elected second chamber to end the current system of patronage which serves to entrench the current system.

3. Lower the voting age to 16: If you can pay tax at 16 years old then you should definitely be able to choose who is setting those taxes. What’s more, as the most unengaged group in society, we need to encourage young people to take an active interest in politics; and a lower voting age, although not providing all the answers, will certainly help.

4. Decentralisation: Control and administration from the centre is still rife in this country. We should be returning powers to local authorities and devolving much more, creating regional assemblies in England, and strengthening the powers of governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

5. Reduce the power of the executive and the party whips system: I don’t know quite how to achieve this, but MPs need to have more collective power over government, and the executive needs to be more accountable to Parliament. This also means reducing the power of the party whips.

6. A more representative parliament: Achieving this is probably the most difficult reform of all. Hopefully, increasing participation in democracy will result in a more diverse range of candidates. But parties themselves have to look at their own rules and selection methods. At present Parliament seems to be made up mostly of rich men and career politicians, a significant proportion of whom were educated at independent schools. This doesn’t exactly resonate with the electorate and leads to accusations of being “in it for themselves” or “out of touch”. Our political parties need not just to recognise this problem but to actually deal with it.

7. Reforming parliamentary procedures: From what I can tell parliamentary procedures seem somewhat old fashioned, and not exactly family friendly. Tradition is important, but not for the sake of it. There must be opportunity for change which in turn may attract a more diverse range of MPs.

8. Recalling MPs: Rather than wait until the next general election, we the voters should have a method of recalling MPs who break the rules or act dishonestly, forcing them to face a by-election.

9. Modernise the voting process: With smart phones and tablets in widespread use, particularly among young people, surely it isn’t beyond our ability to allow online voting in addition to the more traditional methods.

This is quite a lengthy shopping list of reform (and I haven’t even considered party funding, compulsory voting, surveillance and secrecy). Sadly the present FPTP voting system protects the status quo, so another hung parliament is probably needed if anything is going to change. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who had the leverage after the 2010 election, managed only to secure a referendum rather than a new system, and with no support from Tory or Labour it was doomed to failure.

Indeed, the main two parties for all their previous talk of constitutional change and modernisation, have done precious little about it. For all its shortcomings, the current voting system still works in their favour; and so they are unlikely to volunteer change in their own manifestos. The only party with a progressive agenda on these issues is the Green Party who will need to build on their recent successes in a system that unfortunately works very much against them.

Of course if people become more engaged, so they will demand a greater say, ask difficult questions and expect alternative solutions. Set against this will be the vested interests of big business who have most to lose from a more democratic system. So constitutional change will be just part of the solution. For lasting change we will also need our politicians to stand up to the vested interests, and to work for the common good.


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