15 September is the United Nation's International Day of Democracy, and this year it has a particular focus on the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 16: "Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies". Three of the targets in goal 16 relate directly to improving democracy:
- Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms
- Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels
- Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels
Three months since the UK voted to, in the words of Vote Leave, "take control", and two months since Theresa May pledged that "when we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful but you," we seem as far from achieving those UN targets as ever. Just last week, Theresa May's government formally opposed Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe's Lobbying (Transparency) Bill in the House of Lords, which aims to unpick the damage caused by David Cameron's sham UK lobbying register and replace it with a comprehensive register along the lines of those adopted by the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and more recently the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Thankfully, the House of Lords disagreed and the bill has proceeded to the committee stage.
The constituency boundary review, another dismal legacy of the Cameron government, is set to undermine our democratic institutions. By shifting the emphasis away from actual communities, ignoring the millions of people not currently on the electoral register and, most crucially, diminishing the size of the House of Commons at a time when the government seems hell-bent on growing the House of Lords with more cronies than ever, Parliament's ability to act as a check on government and represent the people has come under a renewed threat.
To be fair on Theresa May, she has had a lot on her plate since taking over as Prime Minister, and there is still time for her to respond meaningfully to the public mood. But if she is to do so, she will need to tackle the more reactionary elements within her own party, rather than indulging them as her predecessor did far too often.
Leaving our ongoing relationship with the EU to one side, this is what "taking back control" would mean to me:
- A drastic reduction in the scope of patronage within our political system. This obviously means replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, but it also means greater scrutiny over government appointments to non-departmental public bodies.
- Far greater transparency over who is trying to influence government, and the "revolving door" between big business and government. This should apply to senior civil servants just as much as it does to ministers. A comprehensive lobbying register would be a crucial first step, but so would a regulatory body with teeth. For example, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has not blocked a single former minister or civil servant from working in an area of business where they might have privileged access to government or privileged information. Thus, William Hague has been free to pursue a career advising businesses on who to lobby in government over Brexit - just over a year after leading the Brexit negotiations himself.
- Stricter limits on how much individuals can donate to political campaigns, and how much those campaigns can spend. The EU referendum ended up being a playground for rich millionaires to indulge in their obsessions on both sides, with the rest of us outside looking in. This happens at every major election as well. Caps on donations and lower spending limits would help, but as the election expenses scandal has highlighted, we need a tighter regulatory framework as well to ensure that expenses return have some basis in reality.
- Take decision making out of Whitehall, and place it in the hands of communities and localities. We are one of the most centralised countries in the world, with the minutiae of public policy being micromanaged from a few office blocks in central London. David Cameron talked big on localism, in particular over city regions, but in reality, reforms have tended to go in the opposite direction and large swathes of the country have been simply ignored. Instead of these top-down reforms, it is crucial that local people are given a key role in shaping how their communities should be run.
- Limit and define government power in a written constitution. The Human Rights Act brought rights home and underpins the Northern Ireland peace deal and devolution settlement. Instead of this obsession with unpicking it, we should be going in the opposite direction and looking at cutting Whitehall's powers down to size. We need a much clearer separation of powers to reduce the government's scope to expand its reach without oversight.
- And finally, the big one: proportional representation. It cannot be right that our government can command a majority in the House of Commons with just 37% of the vote, while the millions of Green and UKIP voters go almost unrepresented. In 2015, the system broke down in Scotland completely, with the SNP winning 95% of the seats on 50% of the vote. Our voting system has gone beyond doing a poor job at reflecting public will, and has become toxic.
But what do you think? At Unlock Democracy, we're trying to facilitate a national conversation about what taking back control post-Brexit should look like, and we welcome your views.
If nothing else, this year's referendum highlighted quite how powerful a hunger there is in the UK to engage in meaningful debate about running the country. So many of our British institutions seem to exist solely to sap that public spirit. If Theresa May means what she says about her government being for all and not just the "privileged few", then she needs to direct her attention to addressing this sense of powerlessness that is sweeping the nation.