A Manifesto for Democracy

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.


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.)


  1. Kenneth R. Curran
    15 September 2018

    While I subscribe to John Halstead’s call for a constitutional commission, I seriously doubt the confidence some people have that parliament will be the place where the constitutional changes we require to transform our parliamentary system will start. The environment, customs and history of Westminster are an obstacle to change. If we are ever to get the kind of reforms to our parliamentary system many of us feel are needed in the modern world they will brought about by external parliamentary pressure.

    I am afraid parliament is not the home of enlightenment we would like it to be. Although it is not supposed to be, it is now firmly a member of establishment. Many of the Members of Parliament will fight tooth and nail in order to protect the House of Commons and the privileges of its members. I fear the only way the present parliamentary system will actually change, will be when it is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

  2. Harry Barnes
    30 June 2018

    In response to Kenneth Curren, this link at the close below gives some 35 items showing Corbyn’s stance on issues. It is, of course, possible to argue that some key issues have not yet been tackled by him. Then there is his inheritance from Labour’s Manifesto which he stood on at the last General Election. There is also Labour’s Policy Forum Procedure covering eight fairly wide subject areas (but still missing some key topics).

    Whilst some of the documents on these matters were rather bland, party units had the chance to submit responses up to 24 June. Although the time scale for this was very resticted. My own CLP followed this procedure, centring its views on three of the topics. These documents will now be revised in the light of such submissions, then debated at the coming Labiour Party Conference. Further adjustments to the Policy Documents will then be made and the membership can then again involve themselves in longer procedures to attempt to amend and advance these. This whole procedure might well need to be improved, as is argued by Hugo Radice in an important article on this ILP web-site.

    See – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_positions_of_Jeremy_Corbyn

  3. Kenneth R. Curran
    22 June 2018

    Following my comments referring to the legacies of communism. Larry Elliott in the Guardian 21st June 2018 he suggests that following the Financial Crisis of 2007-8 Labour became deeply politically conservative, Elliott refers to it as a malaise which swept across the Democratic Socialist Parties of Europe. All of a sudden the Left were no longer thinking, nobody was challenging the behaviour of capitalism. Here in the UK Labour has been out of office since 2010 and the Party still has no real policies to deal with the chaos of neo-capitalism and talk of trade wars and migration. Where Labour stands on a huge number of issues nobody knows. I am sick and tired of Jeremy Corbyn’s new image. We see him in newspaper photo’s and on TV. He always appears mild and sweet appearing like saint in a Biblical story, quiet and serene, surrounded by chaos, but no answers.

  4. Kenneth R. Curran
    21 June 2018

    I agree with John. There appears to be a lethargy across the left not just in British politics but across Europe.

    This is the subject of an article in today’s Journal of the Guardian by their economic correspondent Larry Elliott. He has some difficulty in being able to identify the reasons for Labour’s problems. He suggests that at some point between the first oil crisis in the mid-1970s and the collapse of Communism in 1989 something triggered off what has subsequently developed into politically dangerous conservatism.

    I believe he is right to roughly identify the period for the decline in left-wing ideas. What isn’t addressed are the reasons why left thought is in decline. I am suggesting the ILP has to address the reasons for the deficiencies. I think we tend to regard ourselves as a bit of a ginger group within the Labour Party. It’s time the ILP began to review how to really begin to stimulate democratic thought across the Labour movement. The need for socialist ideas that have relevance in the new technological age are urgently needed.

    It appears as though the collapse of Communism in Russia has in some way psychologically damaged the democratic left. Perhaps there was a hope that somewhere in the huge mass that called itself the Soviet Union there had been some vestige of socialism left in the legacies of Lenin and Stalin.

  5. John Halstead
    20 June 2018

    I do take Ken’s point about urgency. I do think we are in a critical situation. I would love to see an upsurge of public opinion that put real pressure on Labour [and other parties?] to set up a Constitutional Commission, but I don’t see any rush of people wishing to get engaged.

  6. Kenneth R. Curran Snr;
    13 June 2018

    If I may return to John Halstead’s original posting, I believe there is a danger among those who support the view that a Constitutional Commission is needed in order to create the very kind of debate across the country which we are beginning to have. We are in danger of trying to wrestle with all of the details now, when what we have to do is to put the maximum pressure upon our national politicians in order to set up a Constitutional Commission. The debate over what form our Constitution takes should take place once a Constitutional Commission is achieved.

    Going back to the title John Halstead gave his posting – Save Democracy Manifesto – indicates the urgency that is required on this matter. Our democracy, such as it is, is being eroded and threatened by both the economy and technology. We are already in the midst of a revolution, over which our present parliamentary system is having no effective control. Constitutional change is imperative, otherwise corporate capitalism will take control first.

  7. Harry Barnes
    24 May 2018

    But even if your point number 10 is placed on the back-burner that does mean that it is gone. We can just keep it alive without pushing it for an immediate policy programme. Then when circumstances are more favourable, push the issue for policy purposes.

  8. John Halstead
    22 May 2018

    We should all be prepared to think again or look at things from a different perspective. It that spirit, I revisit my manifesto in the post of 20 March. This is not to abandon my 10 points, but to say one might question some of them (particularly no. 10) on grounds of political practicability.

    The remarks of Sionaidh Douglas-Scott (occupant of the Anniversary Chair of Law at Queen Mary University of London) in ‘Without Map of Compass’, London Review of Books, 24 May 2018, are very apposite:

    “The informal, asymmetrical nature of devolution in the UK constitution doesn’t sit well with Brexit. But it is unlikely that Brexit will provide the ‘constitutional moment’ necessary to inspire a written constitution or a federal solution. It seems instead that Brexit has deepened existing divisions. Those who support Scottish independence, or an all-Irish state, have little interest in a settlement that would lock them into the UK, even if it were to guarantee equality of rights between different national communities. Similarly, those most acutely concerned about EU encroachment on national sovereignty have little interest in a more federal Britain. Ultimately, there seem to be only two possible outcomes: either Brexit will shatter the devolution settlement, or taking back control from one union will threaten another.”

    The ‘advisory’ referendum, which its supporters argued to be centripetal – taking back sovereignty for the UK – might ultimately prove centrifugal, tearing Britain apart. What price, then, ‘global Britain’ or, more properly, ‘minnow England’? Can any of this be inserted into Labour’s policy debates?

  9. Harry Barnes
    7 May 2018

    If anyone wishes to contribute to Labour’s Policy Forum Procedure before its first stage closes on 24 June, you can pursue these links concerning its eight developing sets of policy proposals.
    (1) “Towards A National Education Service ” – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/education/towards-a-national-education-service
    (2) “The Future of Work” – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/economy/the-future-of-work
    (3) “A Greener Britain” (which I gave you via the earlier link) – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/environment/a-greener-britain
    (4) “Tacking Health Inequalities” – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/health/tackling-health-inequalities
    (5) “Achieving Sustainable Development Goals” – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/commissions/international/achieving-the-sustainable-development-goals
    (6) “Protecting Communities and Turning Our Lives Around” – https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/home-affairs/protecting-our-communities-and-turning-lives-around
    (7) “Addressing In-work Poverty and Working Age Inequality”- https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/work/addressing-in-work-poverty-and-working-age-inequality
    (8) “Giving People the Power to Shape Their Local Communities” –

  10. Harry Barnes
    3 May 2018

    Then there is this letter in the Guardian by Graham Allen whom I mentioned in comment number 2 above, which includes a link to the Center for Deliberative Democracy.

  11. Harry Barnes
    1 May 2018

    Hi John,

    I accept your criticisms, but avenues can be used to seek to shake matters up.

    This year there is a limited window of opportunity to try to influence Labour’s policies for the next general election. Submissions need to be made to the National Policy Forum by 24 June. Then what is developed will be considered at annual conference. From what emerges at conference, fresh developments will take place and new consultative documents will then be drawn up for early in 2019 for a much longer consultation period to take place – providing we aren’t suddenly bounced into a general election.

    There are also opportunities within constituency parties to determine a range of nominations for various officer, NEC, National Constitutional Committee, National Policy Forum and other positions – as well for contemporary motions. The details for these various matters were circuated to CLP secretaries a few weeks ago.

    The Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Meetings, which we both attend, will have National Policy Forum members dealing with their bodies’ procedures and policy developments at our May and June meetings and there will be a report from conference in October.

    The folowing was circulated to our 10 branches in the NE Derbyshire a few weeks ago. I hope that other CLPs are into such matters:

    “Please act upon the following and circulate it to your members for information.

    “The Labour Party has launched a key consultative procedure in order to determine its policies for the next general election. We are encouraging our branches to hold discussions at their meetings in May to decide upon which key items they would like to see included in Labour’s next manifesto. We ask branch secretaries to then forward the ideas which are determined at their meeting to us by 4 June.

    “The constituency meeting on 21st April will also be given the opportunity to involve itself in this discussion procedure.

    “All ideas which are determined by branches (and submitted to us) and by the constituency will then be forwarded to the Labour Party head office, with copies being circulated to branches and constituency delegates for their information.

    “At a following constituency meeting on 16 June we will then examine the material which has been circulated above, to determine our overall constituency stance. This will also be forwarded to Labour’s head office and will act as guidance for our delegate to the annual conference of the Labour Party when such matters are debated.

    “For guidance, the Labour Party National Policy Forum has published eight consultative documents. Yet submissions outside of these areas are also welcome:
    (1) Early Years, Education and Skills
    (2) Economy, Business and Trade
    (3) Energy and Culture
    (4) Health and Social Care
    (5) Housing, Local Government and Transport
    (6) International
    (7) Justice and Home Affairs
    (8) Work, Pensions and Equality.

    “If anyone wishes to examine the full documents, these can be found via this link: http://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk. Any individual member can also use the same link to submit their own ideas.

    “Unless we have an early general election, the work on developing Labour’s manifesto will then be re-instigated after the coming Labour Party conference in September – as the eight above documents will then have been updated and may be added to.

    “Our constituency can then play its full part in this by building upon the initial work indicated above.”

  12. John Halstead
    28 April 2018

    Apologies to Harry for being late in getting to his post of 25 March. He is right, of course, to point to how Labour members might and should participate in the party’s policy formation process.

    But the document he refers to is very limited. It makes no commitment to a constitutional convention as a way of mobilising the public opinion that it takes to be important and, in addition, says nothing that bears on points [4] to [10] above. It asks for answers to questions that clearly rule out the radical approach we envisage.

    The policy process is described as a ‘consultation’: indeed that is what it is. Just as with government consultations, there is predetermination of the scope and terms of the debate. If it would be unfair to say that the consultation is designed to elicitate responses that overwhelmingly confirm what has already been decided, it clearly limits the terms of debate and falls far short of the operation of true democracy within the party. The recent regional party ‘fixing’ shenanigans over the Labour candidacy for a Sheffield region mayor provides clear illustration.

  13. Harry Barnes
    25 March 2018

    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’.

  14. John Halstead
    23 March 2018

    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.

  15. Kenneth R. Curran
    21 March 2018

    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.

  16. Harry Barnes
    20 March 2018

    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.

  17. Richard Barton
    20 March 2018

    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.

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