Making Britain Democratic

In the wake of Boris Johnson proroguing Parliament, Jon Trickett has called for a “democratic revolution”. Mike Phipps explores the options

Low public confidence in governing institutions is nothing new.  It was Tony Blair’s justification for a raft of constitutional reforms in his first term, including devolution, some new electoral systems, the abolition of most hereditary peers and the Human Rights Act. It cannot be said that these worthy reforms restored confidence – turnout in the 2001 general election fell to 59%, the lowest in decades.

Turnout in the 2017 general election was the highest for 20 years, perhaps longer, according to some research. This may have more to do with the clear alternatives offered by the major parties and in particular the Corbyn leadership’s break with austerity and championing of policies than galvanised younger voters and activists, than any renewed enthusiasm for the state of British democracy, the radical overhaul of which is long overdue. Recent events have brought into sharp focus the archaic nature of some of what passes for the British constitution – which does not exist in the form of a unified written document, but is based on long-standing conventions and sometimes conflicting parliamentary laws. It’s not surprising that John McDonnell referred to the government as an “elective dictatorship” and other members of the Shadow Cabinet have called for fundamental reform.

Jon Trickett outlined some of his ideas in a piece for Open Democracy.   He focused on stricter rules on commercial lobbying of government, overhauling political finance to end the influence of dark money, and tougher regulations on the ‘revolving door’, where government members and civil servants move seamlessly back and forth to and from the private sector, creating potential conflicts of interest. These are important ideas.

In 2017’s general election manifesto, Labour called for a constitutional convention to consider a democratically elected second chamber, rather than the combination of political appointments and hereditary peers we have at the moment. There are real concerns that an unelected House of Lords, which has had no overall party majority since Blair removed most – but not all – hereditary peers, could be a serious obstacle to a radical Corbyn government. But an elected chamber would also have this power. Moreover, if it were elected at a different time to the dominant House of Commons, when the Party’s formidable election machine might not be in full swing, and if it were elected by a more proportional method, as previous reform proposals argued, the likely result would again be a chamber in which no party had overall control, but now claiming a bigger mandate to obstruct the elected government, because it too was elected.

The alternative – abolition – would be highly unlikely to get through a cross-party constitutional convention. For Labour to pursue this as a priority in government could use up a lot of valuable parliamentary time, better spent on transformative social and economic policies. It would be easy, however, to remove the last hereditary peers and the Anglican bishops, a presence which privileges one faith over others.

Greater devolution should also be a priority for any convention, not just in terms of strengthening the powers of existing devolved regions, but for putting greater devolution for England back on the agenda, perhaps in the form of elected regional bodies or an expansion of city-regions. ‘Taking back control’ could mean greater spending powers for councils, and crucially greater revenue-raising opportunities, including the right to set and collect business rates, taken from them by the Thatcher government. Other ideas are already proving popular among voters, including local investment banks and energy companies.

A critical area for reform is the prerogative powers, once exercised by the monarch, but now largely in the prime minister’s hands. These include, topically enough, proroguing Parliament, as well as a great deal of patronage and foreign affairs powers, most of which are not subject to judicial review. In opposition, Tony Blair called for their abolition, but did nothing about it in government.

Gordon Brown decided to give the power to declare war – a prerogative power of government and monarch – to Parliament to decide, which looked democratic, but was frankly irrelevant, as few governments  declare war these days – they just do it. The US, like the UK, has not declared war since World War Two, but that has not stopped its – or our – involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other conflicts.

The Coalition government in 2011 gave Parliament the exclusive power to call an early election, but as 2017 showed, if a PM wants one, most MPs are unlikely to vote against this if they think their party can win. It would be more fruitful to increase the frequency of elections, as the five year term is long by the standards of other democracies. The Chartists in the 19th century called for annual Parliaments and even the US House of Representatives is elected every two years.

There is scope for building on earlier reforms too. The Human Rights Act should be amended to put greater focus on economic and social rights. The Freedom of Information Act finally introduced by Blair in 2005 was narrow and restrictive and could be given much greater reach. More consultation between government and key pressure groups, including the trade unions, needs to become standard practice – after all, business has ready access to those in power.

Three big areas that need addressing but are unlikely to produce consensual solutions are the monarchy, the question of a codified constitution and electoral reform. Unelected monarchies are unjustifiable in any democratic system and, worse, they encourage snobbery, deference and elitism. But the UK monarchy remains popular and the alternative, an elected head of state, could claim a popular mandate to rival the elected government of the day. A Corbyn government should probably leave this institution alone.

Codifying the constitution into a single document would nail down the elusive prerogative powers and arguably give people better protection of their rights. But the process of adopting one would be very time-consuming and a first-term Corbyn government would have bigger priorities. Elsewhere, codified constitutions give a lot more power to the courts to overturn laws made by elected MPs,  and don’t always protect rights better. In the US, where fundamental legal rights are constitutionally protected, Guantanamo Bay continues to hold detainees who have been convicted of no offence, despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 that this was in breach of the constitution. A constitution is only valuable if executives respect it and judiciaries enforce it.

As for electoral reform, there are many excellent theoretical points to be made on either side. But any Labour government is more likely to be exercised by the practical problem of persuading its party’s MPs that some may have to lose their seats in the interests of electoral fairness. That will be neither easy nor, some would argue, desirable. Plus, it would probably necessitate another referendum – not much appetite for that.