Our democratic deficit is deeper than anyone wants to admit. Governments are elected with less than 37% of the vote and just 24% of all registered voters, whilst voter turnout peaks at 66%. Our upper chamber is the largest in Europe, unelected and unrepresentative of the general public. It’s no wonder why we’ve come up with a term for non-voters – ‘the unheard third’.
Is this really the celebrated ‘British democracy’ the world is supposed to love?
The Westminster system survives because there are no rules. Ministers talk about the ‘constitution’ and the special rights and privileges it provides. We have no constitution. There are few rules.
Since her coronation, Theresa May has promised to oversee a revolution in social justice. Her first speech at Downing Street mentioned the creation of an ‘inclusive’ government that would fight ‘burning injustice’.
This is promising stuff, but there’s a problem: the social groups the Prime Minister referred to do not generally vote. A good start to her programme of reform is to bring these people back into the political sphere. Politics needs an active public as much as society requires a leader. Political inclusion is mutually beneficial.
A 2014 report by the Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee found that just 51% of eligible black voters went to the ballot box in 2010. Similar figures were found for other ethnic minorities across England and Wales. In its conclusion, the report confirmed the well-known fact that fewer young, poor and disabled citizens use their vote. For too long, this absence at the polling station has given the government room to manoeuvre. It is, for example, considered politically safe for administrations to target electorally ‘hostile’ social groups whilst lining the pockets of their strongest political supporters, ‘loyal’ to their political cause.
This basic rule allowed the coalition to treble tuition fees whilst introducing a ‘triple lock’ on pensions. In general, pensioners vote. Students do not.
In recent years, politicians have tried to address the ‘Westminster’ problem with various cosmetic solutions. Leaders are blamed, policies are abandoned and more money is spent on spin doctors. In truth, no amount of cash can fix the structural flaws of British democracy. Like most political issues, throwing money at the problem just doesn’t work.
To understand the problem, we must identify its cause.
The majority of people who don’t vote are not even registered to do so. For that reason, voting is not one of their habits. The agenda of all governments favours its supporters, meaning many of the ‘unheard third’ feel threatened. Voting, for them, is not the best or natural way to express anger and disapproval.
We need to change this.
The voting age must be lowered to sixteen, but on one condition – it’s compulsory the first time you vote. Those to dislike the idea of votes before adulthood cite low voter turnout amongst the young as a reason not to lower the franchise. Compulsory voting should solve this. If young people make voting a habit, then governments are forced to adopt policies to fit their concerns. Suddenly, politics becomes accessible, meaningful and relevant.
Another area for reform is the House of Lords. Today, it stands as an installation, a feature you might expect to see in a public gallery or living history museum. There are many suggestions for an alternative, ranging from an elected senate to a national lottery between voters. But regardless of the detail, it’s this kind of major reform which is needed to avert any further deterioration of our political system.
Parliament is an old network for dead men and a country that no longer exists. Mistrust and an ill-informed electorate have caused a dangerous political vacuum – not with politics, but with Westminster and the ‘political class’. This cannot go on.
Now, we must change the rules.