Westminster’s democracy is crumbling. Trade unionists must lead the charge to fix it

Nancy Platts writes that the workers' movement needs to challenge unaccountable power.

September 17, 2018
6 min read

Lack of faith in politics, politicians and government made its debut as a ‘top ten topic’ for Britain: 12 percent of voters cite concerns about our democracy, making it the ninth-biggest issue for the public.  

It’s not hard to see why. At the last General Election in 2017 an incredible 22 million votes were torn up by Westminster’s broken voting system: either being cast for people who weren’t elected or surplus to requirements.

Unlike in Scotland, where people’s voices are still heard if their first preference vote isn’t ‘needed’, First Past the Post effectively throws these ballots on the scrapheap. Not only does it skew our politics, analysis earlier this year showed that Labour could actually win more votes than the Tories in the next General Election, but fewer seats.

At the same time a quick glance at our political institutions is enough to discover that they are entirely unrepresentative of the wider country.

Despite devolution, power is still hyper-centralised to an unfairly-elected Commons and an unelected House of Lords. MPs in safe seats remain largely unchallenged for decades, while parties battle it out over only a handful of swing seats. Women make up less than a third of the House of Commons and barely a quarter of unelected the House of Lords. And an unregulated party funding system means secret donors can steer our democratic debate, while unscrupulous organisations can pump money into an online ‘wild west’ in campaigning.

This all matters because while politics is dominated by an elite minority, working class voices are at best forgotten about, at worst suppressed. This is evident to the alliance of trade unionists who make up the Politics For The Many campaign. Amid the 150th anniversary of the TUC, trade unionists are joining the fight for political reform.

The history of post-war Britain reveals to us that positive change for workers is all too often swept away amid the tug-and-war of majoritarian politics. The winner-takes-all electoral system and culture it encourages incentivises parties to create sweeping reforms – which are then undone by the next government. Except, it seems, right-wing policies are more likely to stick.

That’s partly because the voting system far more frequently locks the left out of power. Analysis by Make Votes Matter has shown that in 14 of the past 15 elections 19 pre-June 2017, there has been a ‘progressive majority’ among voters.

Yet the electoral fragmentation of the left –compared to the relative partisan unity of the right – means that progressives are frequently denied government, due to a voting system which ‘wastes’ all votes for those other than the first-placed candidate in each seat – even if the majority voted for left-of centre parties.

Nonetheless, the policy ‘see-saw’ we get when parties secure artificially-inflated majorities (100% of the power on often 35% of the vote) has been a net disaster for workers. The list of statutory obligations on unions has grown exponentially as majority governments have sought to restrict and heavily regulate trade union activity.

Some policies currently being pushed though by the government which also highlight the divisive, beggar-thy-neighbour politics of the Westminster system. In a policy one would think is designed to lock out the Windrush generation, voters could soon be forced to ‘prove themselves’ to officials at the polling station before being allowed to vote. Of course, certain parties will lose out more from this than others. But the government pushes ahead regardless, introducing barriers to democratic participation which would disproportionately harm those groups in society who are already marginalised.

And the planned cut in MPs (without a proportionate cut in the number of Ministers) would make it easier for the government to do as it pleases with reduced scrutiny from backbench MPs. This could come into force around the time Parliament is landed with a huge legislative burden as a consequence of Brexit, the worst possible timing.

And as the government look to cull elected politicians, it continues to add its loyal supporters into the unelected House of Lords, already the second-largest legislative chamber in the world. There are rumours that every Tory peer who loses their seat in the boundary review will be handed a seat for life in the Palace’s very own private members’ club.

But when people is devolved, we see governments in Wales and Scotland opening up their democracy, with votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. Scotland is consulting on much-needed improvements to local governance, while Wales is legislating to modernise democracy.

The contrast to what’s happening in London is stark – and root and branch reform of the Westminster system is needed to create a politics for the many. A proportional voting system – already used across the world – would ensure every vote counts, wherever it’s cast. That swathes of the country aren’t left to wither on the vine. And that voters no longer feel they must vote tactically, but positively.

It could change the entire political culture, requiring parties to appeal to a bigger portion of society, to reach common positions on policy, and to end the existing tug-of-war which had so badly restricted workers’ rights.

We need a new Charter for Democracy: scrapping the unelected House of Lords and replacing it with a fairly-elected Senate of all Regions, empowering 16 and 17 year olds in England (as in Scotland and soon Wales) and changing how we elect MPs.

As it currently exists the Palace of Westminster has its gates firmly locked. The elite within aren’t planning to budge and the majority of people can only watch on from outside. Challenging unaccountable power – in every form – is at the core of a truly democratic workers’ movement. Because for economic equality to last, we must have political equality too.

Nancy Platts is former trade union adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, and is coordinator of Politics for the Many

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