6 reforms to revitalise our democracy
- Part of Bright Green’s new political engagement series
If there’s anything we can read into it, the EU referendum laid bare the disconnect many people feel with ‘established’ politics.
We need to be talking about how to mend that rift. How to fix the disconnect and bring back the millions of alienated people into the political fold. In the midst of the current political climate, what better time to discuss how exactly to do that?
We already talk a lot about proportional representation, so I won’t go into that here – it’s accepted by many on the Left and it’s right that we keep making those calls. But there are other changes we can push for in the meantime. So here’s a start
1.) Ensure public involvement in post-Brexit plans
What comes after the Brexit vote is almost more important than the campaign itself. There are a million different possible ‘Brexits’, and people voted to leave for a wide variety of reasons on June 23rd – from left-wing Lexiteers to those wanting total free trade, to others wanting a more protectionist economy, and from EFTA to the EEA and a ‘standard’ free trade deal.
Voters – Leave or Remain – didn’t vote for their inclusion in this debate to end – they voted for the start of a process which needs the widest input from society as possible. Progressives could start by pushing for a Citizens’ Assembly to exist alongside the Brexit negotiations and to feed into them, or for a referendum on any final deal (as long as that vote ensured proper deliberation and informed debate). The Conservatives can’t be allowed to decide everything behind closed doors in this crucial constitutional time in our history.
2.) Keep up the pressure on Lords reform
Last week, the Electoral Reform Society revealed that David Cameron’s appointments to the Lords have cost £13m over the past six years – and that his 16 new Tory resignation Peers will cost nearly half a million per year on top. The outrage over Cameron’s appointments led to something fairly exciting, which sadly slipped under the radar: Theresa May has promised Lords reform.
And not just any reform – an elected chamber. This is big news. With Labour dithering (and with them being not entirely untarnished when it comes to appointments), it’s up to progressives of all colours to hold the Tories’ feet to the fire on this and to push for any elected chamber to be elected via PR – although any reform is better than none, and imperfect action shouldn’t be used as an excuse to prevent any action on this.
3.) Build momentum for a ‘registration revolution’
The latest registration stats from the Electoral Commission show that, despite a huge push during the EU referendum, around 14% of those eligible still aren’t on the electoral register. In many European countries, that would be an impossibility (most have systems of automatic registration via social security).
While some people have concerns about automatic registration per se (going on the register can threaten the anonymity of those fleeing domestic violence, for instance), there’s a lot we can do before that point – giving people the chance to register when they interact with the government at any level – from driving licenses to pensions, and benefits applications or while at school. This ‘motor voter’ registration system could plug the huge democratic gap that still exists when it comes to who can vote.
4.) Ensure the boundary changes don’t hit female representation
The Boundary Review is currently going through, in time for the 2020 General Election. And it’s happening alongside plans to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Yet there’s a huge concern that in the shake-up that’s coming, women will lose out – after all, it’s the male-dominated safe seat MPs that are more likely to be protected, while marginals – which have a higher proportion of female MPs – are always more at risk.
Parties like the Greens could lead by example when it comes to the shake-up, retaining our position as the party with the highest proportion of female candidates and pushing other parties to protect women’s representation.
5.) Go big on democratising devolution
English devolution is happening, that’s a given. Parties are currently selecting their Mayoral candidates for some of the major devolution areas – with Labour picking three (men) this week alone. Through those Mayoral contests, the Greens can push a democratic model of devolution – whether that’s the need for local, PR-elected Assemblies to citizens’ panels on local issues, given the one-party domination of many of these areas.
We need to prioritise local scrutiny and devolution models that work for people, not just regional GDP statistics or an obsession with business rates and enterprise zones. And the Mayoral contests are one way of getting that message across – for devolution to be decided by the people it will affect, rather than back-room stitch-ups or closed-door deals among council chiefs and the government. Let’s use this platform to move our messages up the agenda.
6.) Push May on votes at 16
Finally, there’s a lot of talk of this government being a ‘reforming’ one. One of the most effective democratic changes would be to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote. It was a travesty that they couldn’t have a say in the EU referendum – and it’s time to say ;never again’ should they be excluded from our democracy. Votes at 16 is now universal in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, and is likely to be introduced very soon in Wales once the Wales Bill has passed.
While it’s no panacea, the huge success of votes at 16 in Scotland during the referendum showed its possibilities. With Labour lagging on democratic reform, the Greens and other smaller parties need to be speaking up loud and clear, working together, to ensure we have a truly fair franchise in the UK.
All of these changes are things progressives can be working towards now, using the platforms that we have to raise the banner of democratic reform following the constitutional turmoil we’ve been plunged into after the EU vote.
Let’s take a stand – not just for PR, but the widest-reaching democratic revival in this country.
[Josiah Mortimer works for the Electoral Reform Society, and writes in a personal capacity]
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