• Simon Verdon

2020 - A Review of UK Democracy

The 2019 General Election - dominated by the grand narratives of Brexit, climate crisis, austerity, the NHS, and multi-billion pound investment proposals – has also brought a welcome focus on the issue of democracy in the party manifestos. Whilst this focus has for the most part generated little media attention or broader discussion, it is a consistent theme across all party manifestos - indicating a consensus that UK democracy is in need of attention and, potentially, sets an agenda item for the next government and parliament to address in earnest. The specific elements of democracy that have received attention in the manifestos differs in a number of ways across the parties, as do the proposed solutions – but there are a number of common themes and proposals. These include replacing First-Past-The-Post with a Single Transferable Vote system (SNP, LD, Plaid, Greens) or a ‘more representative’ system (Brexit Party), extending the franchise to all 16-17 year olds and EU nationals living in the UK (Labour, SNP, LD, Plaid, Greens), extending the voting rights of UK citizens abroad (Con, LD), and either abolishing (SNP, Brexit Party) or reforming (Labour, LD, Plaid, Greens) the House of Lords. To a certain extent there are few surprises here - the reform of the electoral system and the House of Lords are perennial themes, and with regard to the franchise there has been much debate recently; so by and large the various parties are simply re-iterating their established positions.   However, what is particularly notable is that the manifestos go further than this – acknowledging deeper concerns around the fundamental principles of trust and engagement that our democracy relies on for its legitimacy. The Labour manifesto speaks of ‘revitalising’ democracy and a ‘democratic revolution’. A key element of this is the establishment of a Constitutional Convention – which will “answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.”  The Greens likewise propose a Citizens Convention with much the same objective. Meanwhile the Conservative manifesto recognises the need to “restore trust in our institutions and how our democracy operates” and to that end propose the establishment of a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission. The remit of the Commission would be to examine in depth the relationship between Government, Parliament and the courts; the Royal Prerogative; the House of Lords; administrative law, and a range of other issues. Of all the proposals relating to democracy, across all the manifestos, this one in particular has generated most polarised comment – primarily on social media - with some welcoming it as long-overdue, and others expressing concern about the motivations behind it. However, despite the difference in nature and focus of the Labour and Conservative proposals, the key point is that the basic proposition – that there are fundamental issues around democracy, engagement and trust – is a shared one, is a view shared across all the parties, and is an issue that the new government and new parliament will need to address. A second key point raised in the manifestos relates to the security and safeguarding of our democracy. Concerns around the potential vulnerability of our democratic system to fraud, interference and foreign influence have risen sharply in recent years – with much attention given to these concerns in the mainstream and social media. The Lib Dem manifesto addresses security in broad terms – with a policy to ‘Review the need for any election safeguarding legislation that is needed to respond to emerging challenges of the Internet age, such as foreign interference in elections.’ There are no specifics given, but it is interesting to note that they have fewer concerns regarding safeguarding measures at voting stations, as they – along with Labour and the Greens - propose to ‘scrap the plans’ for voter ID. Two parties raise specific concerns around postal voting – the Conservatives making a commitment to stop ‘postal vote harvesting’, and the Brexit Party undertaking to ‘overhaul the postal voting system to combat fraud and abuse.’ This issue was recently raised as an area of concern in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee inquiry into Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 - before the sessions were suspended when the General Election was called. During these sessions, Simon James, Deputy Director of the Elections Division in the Cabinet Office stated that “The Government recognise that there are a number of areas where postal voting is open to fraud”, and this was reinforced by evidence from Lord Pickles. Further evidence also indicated that the perception of vulnerability in the postal voting system – and our democratic system more broadly – impacts negatively on voter registration and participation. In this regard, the vulnerability of our democratic system – or the perception of it – is another dimension of the issue of trust and engagement, and suggests that any review of our democracy needs to include processes as much as it does institutions and systems. Beyond the general issue of safeguarding, postal vote harvesting, and a commitment to introduce a ‘system of automatic voter registration’ (Labour, LD), the manifestos don’t appear to have picked up on any of the other issues raised in the Committee sessions. These include education/information, accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, reaching under-registered groups, proposals for a national (checkable) database, review of the annual canvass and two-stage system of registration, the cost to councils of providing electoral services, and the delivery pressures on electoral officers.  Many of the proposals in the various manifestos would have significant negative impacts on local government and electoral officers without issues of resourcing, support and capacity being adequately addressed. It will certainly be essential to ensure that the voice of electoral administrators is heard in any review of democracy undertaken.   It is to be hoped that the Committee will recommence its inquiry once the new parliamentary term begins, and that the evidence and findings will help to inform any review of our democratic system that follows. That there seems to be cross-party agreement that we cannot take our democracy for granted, that it must be constantly guarded, and constantly fostered, is certainly to be welcomed. Yet for all the democracy issues that have been raised across the manifestos, there are yet broader issues that need to be addressed relating to processes, resourcing, security, inclusion, and the technical systems and infrastructure which help deliver it. Further, for all that the manifestos have, in their own ways, provided different proposals on how to strengthen our democracy and restore trust in it, what seems missing is a coherent, integrated ‘big picture’.  How we want democracy in the UK to look, in form and function; how to encourage participation and engagement; what we want the voter experience to be; how we reduce the bureaucratic burden on electoral administrators; and how we help the democratic process to evolve and expand in the digital age in a way that is ever-more resilient, and ever-more inclusive – these are all questions a review of our democracy will need to address, and we look forward to being part of the discussion, and the solution.  

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