THE BLOG

The Illusion of British Democracy Is Fragile

29/03/2016 12:23 | Updated 29 March 2016

Ever since Pericles and the ancient Athenians "rule by the people, democracy has been hotly contested. It is under particular pressure today with widely diverging beliefs around the world, not least those fueled by extremism.

Commentators tell us regularly about Britain being at the vanguard of democracy. In truth it is probably a self-serving assertion - one that is under threat. With fewer elected MP's, more unelected peers, anti Trade Union measures, Short money cutbacks, people missing from the Electoral Roll due to new Individual Voter Registration and boundary changes removing even more people, the notion of a fair democracy is getting even harder to justify.

According to an Electoral Commission report published in 2014, 7.5 million people are missing from the Electoral Register - so much for democracy. That's equivalent to 12% of the population and represents 25% of people who voted in the 2015 General Election. That's hardly insignificant.

The Government wants to reduce the number of MP's to 600 from 650 and equalise the size of each constituency. Based on 2015 figures the Conservative lose 14, Labour 21, LibDem 4 and others 7 seats. At a time of austerity, the Tories claim politicians need to lead by example. Leaving aside whether austerity is necessary or not, The Electoral Reform Society rightly pondered on this claim, saying:
'so that's a 8% decrease in the number of elected MP's to pay for a 17% increase in the number of elected Lords", 244 Peers.'

Approximately 800,000 citizens have dropped off the Electoral Roll as a consequence of Individual Voter Registration being implemented too quickly and without adequate awareness raising. Action could have been taken to link voter registration to the provision of services, tax or passport records.

All this matches well with the Tory supporter profile, which favours older rather than younger voters - they wouldn't do it otherwise. If they were sincere then the Government would be actively engaging with young people through online media and citizen education, instead of leaving it to bite the Ballot and broader civic society.

There is little incentive for the Tories to reform our political system to make it fairer. That just wouldn't work for them because under First Past the Post in 2015 they got 52% of seats with only 37% of votes. That can be cemented by implementing the Boundary Commission proposals which gives them another 20 seats and restricting trade union funding to Labour and short money to all opposition parties. It is cynical, calculated and further erodes democracy.

In this toxic mix it is hardly surprising that people do not feel connected with Government and do not trust politicians. People no longer believe that politics is relevant to their lives.

Instead of responding constructively to these changing dynamics, the Tories simply seek to clinch a divide and rule country. That leads to an unhealthy polarisation not just in politics, but in our communities between the 'haves and have nots', with the potential for social unrest. Some 63% of the population didn't vote Tory, yet they hold a questionable 'mandate' to lean on disabled people's benefits and provide tax giveaways to the wealthy.

Whilst there has been progress in recent years with the diversity of politicians, there is still much more to be done. Indeed, with the 2015 intake we saw a significant fall in the number of disabled Members of the Commons. The closure of the Access to Elected Office Fund and little sign of affirmative action, woeful representation of disabled people is unlikely to change any time soon. Reluctantly, I hesitate about replacing The Lords with a wholly elected Senate. The direct and authentic voices of disabled people tend to come from cross benchers. On past performance alone, turning our second chamber over to the will of political parties isn't going to help matters. An unelected system goes against principle, but there is a case for pragmatism if parties aren't going to meet the 'Disability Challenge'.

It is time to wise up to the illusion of democracy, recognise that inaction is a threat to our country's stability and take active steps to inspire everyone to become a change-maker. That can be accomplished by administering effective and transparent electoral registration, engaging with citizens innovatively, making votes matter and politicians more representative. With that mix, the illusion of democracy may transform into reality and consequently become less fragile.

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