Home > Political parties and ideologies > Democracy > Democracy in the UK
  • Feature

Democracy in the UK

The Charter 88 movement has fought for constitutional change in the UK since 1988. Its demands are still relevant in calling for a bold remedy to years of institutional and political decay, argues Helena Kennedy

6 to 7 minute read

I came to know and admire Red Pepper through Hilary Wainwright, who was on the council of Charter 88 from the beginning and would go on to co-found Red Pepper. She brought with her a distinctly radical, participatory approach to democracy. The Charter 88 campaign came into existence as a direct response to Thatcherism. Thatcher’s authoritarianism revealed the remorseless growth of central power both made possible and disguised by Britain’s unwritten constitution.

Many people, especially in the nations of the UK, believed that something was seriously wrong with the architecture of the British state. Whilst the Troubles – and the sectarian divide – continued in Northern Ireland, in Scotland this belief found expression in the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the Scottish Claim of Right (1989). In England and Wales, Charter 88 became the campaigning focus.

By 1988, voters in Scotland and Wales were feeling completely alienated from the Westminster parliament and wanted decision-making powers closer to home. Parliamentary structures were outmoded and we still had a House of Lords overwhelmingly filled with hereditary peers. The secrecy that surrounded the working of government made it difficult to hold politicians to account and when citizen’s rights were trammelled by the state it took six long years to journey to the European Court of Human Rights to seek redress, as I knew from my own practice. Then there was the issue of unfairness when it came to voting, whereby the first-past-the-post system privileged the two main parties. Proportional representation was a recurring theme on the wish list of many seeking reform. Charter 88 also called for a written constitution, a bill of rights, a Freedom of Information Act, reform of the House of Lords and reform of the judiciary.

The political class never really understood the depth of the distrust that had been sown

The Charter 88 campaign felt fresh and empowering. It brought together all the different democratic failings of the centralised, monarchical state into a single coherent framework, revealing the fundamentally undemocratic character of the UK. It also brought together people from all parts of the political firmament, apart from mainstream Labour and the Conservative Party. Even then, a few enlightened Tories, such as Richard Shepherd MP and Ferdinand Mount, either supported us or agreed with the direction of travel. We all knew, to quote Lord Hailsham, that an ‘elective dictatorship’ was bad for democracy. New checks and balances had to be created.

A new relationship

I was a member of the Charter 88 council from the outset and chair from 1992 until the 1997 election. Red Pepper, with its radical green and feminist kind of socialism, played a vital role in getting many on the left to come in behind the campaign. When John Smith was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1992, we knew we had a more sympathetic ear for our campaign issues. It may be surprising that, following his sudden death in 1994 and the invention of New Labour, it was Peter Mandelson who saw the force of embracing the constitutional agenda as part of Labour’s modernising project.

After a series of negotiations, we had the breath-taking excitement of seeing our whole platform absorbed into the New Labour manifesto. For many of us, the 1997 victory augured the building of a new relationship between citizen and state. I was appointed to the House of Lords to champion the constitutional reform agenda. That first term in office produced the most far-reaching reforms since the Great Reform Act of 1832. However, it soon became clear that the changes did not spring from a coherent vision of a pluralist democracy. The ambivalent nature of the commitment became apparent very quickly, especially around proportional representation.

While we had devolution to Scotland and Wales, we saw increasing centralisation in England. While we had an innovative Human Rights Act, we also had a raft of deeply authoritarian legislation, which reduced civil liberties, attacked the right to jury trial and expanded the state’s capacity to intrude into the lives of citizens. The reforms should have meant giving power away. However, as our new political masters found, holding the reins of centralised power is profoundly seductive.

Reform trimmed

On virtually every constitutional front, reform was trimmed. When judges delivered judgement against the government on their treatment of asylum seekers, just like today, the prime minister suggested legislation to curtail judicial power. When a mayor was being selected for London and a leader for the Welsh Assembly, Downing Street sought to parachute in its own hand-picked candidates. For the House of Lords, Tony Blair chose a wholly appointed chamber, rather than a democratically elected one.

In among all this, the commitment to free market economics remained undiminished. The Thatcherite economic reforms were so deeply embedded in the political psyche that alternatives seemed impossible to New Labour. Alas, the lives of those people who had suffered most under Thatcher’s de-industrialisation strategies hardly changed.

Disengagement from politics

In 2004, I chaired an independent inquiry into Britain’s democracy and found myself revisiting the same constitutional issues that existed under Thatcher. The question we tackled was, ‘Why are we seeing such a decline in voting and a haemorrhaging of membership of political parties?’ The Power inquiry taught me that the public felt their voices counted for little and would continue to be marginalised without a real opening of institutions to the participation of the people.

As we took evidence – in community centres, town halls and sports grounds – it was clear that the disengagement from politics could not be dismissed as the preoccupation of the few. The substance of our findings was found in the voices of thousands of people who felt depressed and alienated from politics. Yet when people moved beyond perceptions about politicians’ self-interest and lies, a very different complaint surfaced. The disquiet was about having no say. We made lots of recommendations about re-engaging the public between elections with citizens’ juries on issues of concern, participative democracy, citizens’ assemblies and a new voting system to make people feel their vote counted.

The parties responded with interest, cherry-picking their way through our recommendations. But the political class never really understood the depth of the distrust that had been sown. Only a radical remedy would fix it – but that involves giving away power. Power: the very reason for winning elections. Who would be so bold?

Proof of alienation

The proof of that alienation came with the rise of UKIP and the referendum on EU membership. The electorate suddenly was given something to blame for all the nation’s ills. The ruthless and cruel method of de-industrialisation had deeply damaged many communities in the north of England. The presence of European workers was given as an explanation for joblessness and blamed for the demands upon housing, healthcare and school places. The austerity that brought many households to their knees was blamed on Labour rather than being seen as a deliberate policy choice.

Red Pepper followed these developments all the way. Here we are, with every institution falling apart, from our schools to our health service, our universities and colleges to our justice and care systems. Our local authorities are going bankrupt and there is a desperate housing crisis. We have had a Conservative government captured by its extreme right and egged on by a highly partisan media. The only hope is for a Labour government. I always remember someone explaining to me that there is insufficient distance between the parties but remember that millions of people live within that difference. We have to continue the struggle for change.

This article first appeared in Issue #244 30 Years of Red Pepper. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Helena Kennedy KC is a barrister, a member of the House of Lords and a founder of Charter 88, the movement to democratise the UK state

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...