A Manifesto for Democracy

Mar 20th, 2018 | By admin | Category: Articles, Comment, Frontpage

JOHN HALSTEAD believes that British democracy is not fit for purpose. This is his recipe for change.

It is the contention of this brief paper that British democracy is not working, either philosophically or practically. Philosophically speaking, there is no effective representation; practically speaking, no political party is proposing radical reform to break the sclerosis currently evident in the system.

I believe the following suggestions represent a radical programme. I am putting these forward in an effort to prompt debate and see what other people think.

Save Democracy Manifesto

[1] The British system of democracy is one of representative democracy. In law, Parliament is held to be sovereign. But in practice these principles have been violated by referenda. The argument for the sovereignty of Parliament and representative democracy is the need for deliberation and checks and balances in governance decision making. It follows that referenda should be abolished, but if politically not completely avoidable, only be initiated in exceptional national interest circumstances and under specific conditions.

[2] Power is too highly centralised. The first demonstration of this point is the existence and exercise of the royal prerogative, a device to allow government to act as an absolute monarch. Such feudal constitutional arrangements violate democracy and should be abolished.

[3] The second demonstration of excessive centralisation is the lack of an effective voice for the regions and nations comprising the UK polity, despite current devolution arrangements. The consequence is that the country outside London and the south east is subject to subordination, associated with economic and social decline.

[4] The remedy for [3] is twofold: a coherent rather than the current ad hoc system of devolution, advocated by an expert commission and determined in a constitutional convention; and reform of the second chamber, the so-called House of Lords.

[5] The case for a reformed second chamber is that bicameralism is preferable to unicameralism. Good politics and political decision requires checks and balances. The current bloated second chamber is constituted undemocratically and should be reformed on an elected basis, different from that of the Commons.

[6] Election to a reformed second chamber should be indirect, from bodies of government amongst the nationalities and regions devolved as at [3]. It should also include a limited number of members drawn from constituencies of expertise. This would strengthen its capacity to act effectively as a revising chamber. The elected basis of the chamber would lead to greater powers relative to those of the Commons, but that should be welcomed as it would balance the distribution of powers within the polity.

[6] The constitution of the Commons is in need of radical reform. The Commons should not be elected on the first-past-the-post system. The system ensures that elections are determined by a relatively small number of swing voters in a relatively small number of marginal constituencies. Moreover, the representatives elected inadequately reflect the distribution of political views among the electorate at large. No system that does not produce electoral outcomes that more or less reflect the distribution of popular opinion among the voters can claim to be representative or express the spirit of democracy.

[7] Reform as required by [6] should be devised to retain a tangible link between representatives and their constituencies and this militates against a theoretically perfect proportional system, but systems to replace simple first-past-the-post and introduce a greater degree of proportionality. They should be examined by an expert commission and recommendations adopted after debate in a constitutional convention, as at [4].

[8] Voting regulations are inadequate. Voters should be automatically registered by the state and qualified from the age of sixteen. Voting should be compulsory. Ballot papers should have provision for writing in reasons for not voting for any of the above.

[9] The law on political campaigning and expenditure is in need of drastic revision. Social media, data analytics, and expenditures within and outside election campaigns, need to be considered as a whole with respect to their impact on true democracy. Parliament should not be just ‘the executive committee of the bourgeoisie’, or of spread-betting billionaires and rich hedge fund managers with fortunes protected through ‘treasure islands’ and non-domicile status.

[10] The polity reformed as above should be enshrined in written and federal constitution. The written constitution will require a mechanism for its adaptation in the light of changed circumstances and challenges, but the writing will ensure more certain legal mechanisms for its observance than under our unwritten version. Federalism will prevent undue centralisation and block too frequent policy reversals by political factions.

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Further Relevant Reading

Edmund Burke, ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll’, in The Political Tracts and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Esq., Member of Parliament for the City of Bristol, Dublin, 1777, pp 345-355.
(See for the classic statement of the argument for representative democracy.)

Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1952, Bloomsbury, 2015
(See for a classic persuasive argument for the Aristotlean view of politics as ‘compromise’.)

Bernard Crick, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, 2002
(See for the best introduction to democracy.)

Norman Davies, The Isles: A History, Macmillan, 1999
(This is the best treatment from an English historian in a general history of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh dimensions of ‘our island story’. It takes a critical view of English historiography and its ‘imperial’ distortions.)

AC Grayling, Democracy and Its Crisis, One World Publications, 2017
(The essential contemporary text dealing with our present situation.)

Robert Hazell, The English Question, Manchester University Press, 2012
(A useful set of essays on England in the union and English regionalism.)

S. Lindahl, ‘Early Democratic Traditions’, in E. Allardt, ed., Nordic Democracy: Ideas, Issues and Institutions, Copenhagen, 1981
(This illustrates a different tradition than the Greek one, relevant to at least some of us from ‘the tribes of Britain’!)

Wolf Linder, Swiss Democracy: possible solutions to conflict in multicultural societies, Macmillan, 2nd edition, 1998
(Of interest in relation to referenda and participative democracy.)

John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, Yale University Press, 2005
(A essential text on the degeneration of modern democracy.)

David Van Rebrouck, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, Bodley Head, 2013
(Makes the argument for a form of participatory democracy in relation to at least some political functions.)

John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861
(The classic text on the need for an ‘educated’ democracy.)

Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Colonialism, New Left Books, 1977.  Expanded edition, Verso, 1981, Third edition, Common Ground, 2015.
(The essential prescient foundation text.)

Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, CUP, 1970
(The classic academic study.)

Charles Seager, Plutocracy as a Principle: Does the Possession of Property Involve as a Moral Right that of Political Power? A Letter in which are Addressed Both Sides of the Question, 2nd edition, Whitaker & Co, 1867
(The 19th century argument about the interests that should be represented in a democracy. Not entirely irrelevant to today’s ‘money’ politics.)

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  1. This sounds like a very good strategy for developing a better, more democratic and more transparent government. We just need to complete the process by abolishing the monarchy and replacing it with a Presidential system similar to the one that has emerged in Ireland.

  2. A small first step towards democracy would be for the Commons to re-establlsh its Political and Constitutional Select Committee which only existed from 2010 to 2015, but did some valuable work under its Chair Graham Allen. Then the Electoral Commission should be given a shake-up and the boundaries of its work extended. We also need a Constitutional Convention as argued for by Labour under Miliband. In the meantime Labour should itself be into the issues, but it let it drop via its front bench resuffles.

    We should adopt a written constitution removing the use of the royal prerogative. This constitution should require acceptance via a referendum which should itself re-strict the further use of referendums to any amendments to its provisions. In the long term this could include amendments enabling us to re-join the EEU.

    The written constitution we are asked to endorse should provide for a federal structure within the UK, with identical federal powers for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and regions in England. The boundaries of Englands Regions hopefully being determined by practical economic links. It is due to is relative size that England needs Federal Regions.

    We need a bicameral system on the type of basis which John suggests, but with the Lower House retaining ulitimate controls on any unresolved diffferences.

    I favour a universal franchise for all people settled in this country, whatever their country of origin. Votes at 16 are practically helpful, so initial registration can be undertaken via the education system and people can then be traced more easily in the future for further registration puposes. Civic education from 14 or so, should be given a key role in the education system and this can lead young people into understandings of the relevance of politics to their lives – it should, of course, be a questioning education and not indoctrination.

    We need a more proportionate electoral system, but need to square this with having MPs who should arise from near the areas they represent and be expected to serve the needs of their own constituents. This mixed proportionate/constituency arrangement is a difficult circle to square. The electoral systems in Germany and the Republic of Ireland can show something of the way forward.

    To me the problem with compulsory voting is that it hides from view the lack of enthusiasm which some of the electorate have for elected politicians. Low voting patterns should help stire us into action.

    On electoral expences, each candidate’s registered income and expenses could be published via door to door leaflets for the areas in which they stood. To this could be added to with national details of the income and expenditure by any pollitical party they represented. Controls over manipulations by outside bodies are prime matters for persistant examinations by a Commons Political and Constitutional Select Committee and by a revamped Electoral Commission.

    To John’s booklist I would add “The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest About the UK Presidency” by Graham Allen (2001). Don’t be put off by the fact that the picture on the back shows him shaking hands with Blair. For as an MP it was Graham’s initiative which stopped Blair going to war against Iraq by only using royal prerogative powers and this at least gave the Commons a (manipulated!) vote on the matter.

  3. The article by John Halstead could indeed, in my opinion, herald a much needed wind of change in British politics, as we are well aware our present forms of governance have grown from a mediaeval system into a form of representative government, yet still retaining a strong hint of privilege and deference completely at odds with democracy.

    The present system finds itself challenged almost on a daily basis from a population living in the present century, increasingly at odds with a governmental and legal system with its roots deep in the past. We have to move forward in a constructive and measured pace in order for the nation to create the institutions needed to allow future generations to take advantage of the opportunities provided by new technology and the new concepts of public ownership which are emerging.

    The ILP as one of the original founders of the Labour Party is an appropriate body to promote this much needed debate on the future of our democracy. Regrettably, almost all sections of the Labour Party are so busy dealing with the day to day issues of governance, they are unable to raise their heads and look ahead to see a better way forward for all the people of Britain.

  4. Thanks to all for their comments.

    Yes, Richard, the monarchy and the British honours system really should go. I am familiar with that process from when, as a civil servant, I was involved under orders(!) in nominating someone as a recipient. The former, the ‘dignified’ part of the British constitution, is the lynch-pin of a culture of snobbery and privilege that holds back and destroys native talent. The latter system rewards many not deserving it, as well as many who do. But those deserving recognition are singled out invidiously, elevating them above many other equally worthy candidates. Those truly deserving do good deeds out of their heart and need no public recognition.

    Yes, Ken, I hope the ILP can do something to get our current parliamentarians to lift their heads and show some vision. Clinton’s slogan, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, to take only one example, calls for much more than is in Labour’s current return to nationalisation promise.

    Harry adds valuable detail to the manifesto. As to his comment on point 8 and compulsory voting, I should say that the companion point about space for compulsory voters to register their reasons for not voting is intended to improve information about the reasons for popular dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, and therefore provide a ‘wake-up’ call.

  5. On 19 March the Labour Party commenced a consultation process for developing its policies. It issued eight documents covering a range of policy areas. Individuals members, branches, constituency parties, and affiliated bodies only have until 24 June to submit their initial responses. One avenue to see the documents and then to make responses can be found here – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk.

    The policy commissions to whom submissions are made then start to update their existing documents in view of the submission they have received from early July. The revised documents will then be discussed at the annual conference of the Labour Party in September. New draft policy documents will be issued in the winter and in early 2019 a new consultation will commence.

    On the subject matter of this thread, the document which could be pressed to (considerably) widen its scope seems to be ‘Housing, Local Government and Transport: Giving people the power to shape their local communities’.

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