The Case for Reforming

Democracy in the UK

What should a democracy look like? How does the UK measure up?

  • Power should be distributed widely in society and not concentrated in a few hands. This is an important aspect of pluralism. Where power is concentrated, it is often described as elitism.

  • There should be free information available to all. In other words, neither government nor any elites should control the flow of information to the people.

  • There should be tolerance of different beliefs, lifestyles, religions and movements, provided these do not threaten the state and/or behave illegally.

  • People should be free to form legal associations, including political parties and pressure groups. Such associations are known collectively as civil society. A flourishing civil society is another aspect of pluralism.

  • There is widespread participation in political activity. A passive, uninformed people does not make for a healthy democracy.

  • Elections should be free and fair with a peaceful transfer of power.

  • There should be a rule of law; which means and independent and neutral judiciary, equal access to the law and equal treatment by the law. Rule of Law Ranking

The case for reform of the UK democratic system

Although democracy in the UK has continued to evolve from the 19th Century, there was until the mid 20th Century a general belief that the UK was an example of how democracy should function, however since the 1980s there has been an increasing debate about how well the democratic system in the UK functions. Concerns have focussed on the voting system, the dominance of the executive, the fairness of elections, the funding of parties, the unelected Lords and the decline in participation. Since government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people and democracy validates the policies of those who exercise power, these concerns have led to increasing calls for reform.

Here is a list of the concerns which have been directed at UK democracy

The UK is suffering from a 'democratic deficit' ? with unfair elections, limited democracy and weak accountability.

·The voting system is unfair The House of Commons is elected by the 'first-past-the-post' system, which produces a mismatch between the votes cast for UK political parties and the seats that each party wins in Parliament.

■ Wasted votes. Any votes cast for a candidate who does not win in a constituency play no role in the selection of representatives in parliament, meaning they are effectively wasted.

■ Safe seats. Some constituencies elect a candidate from the same party in every election and the level of support required to win the constituency is so high that voters see no point in voting for a different party.

■ Unrepresentative. Differences in the concentration of support across the UK mean that the result of elections does not reflect the way the public voted, with UKIP winning 13% of the vote in 2015 but only 1 seat, while the SNP gained 56 seats with only 2% of the national vote.

■ Winner’s bonus. The system exaggerates the support received by the most popular party, which means the party receives more seats than is proportional to the number of votes it received, thus boosting its majority in parliament. For example 2019 The Conservative 80 seat majority was with 43% 0f the vote.

· House of Lords lacks democratic legitimacy The House of Lords is unelected. Periodic attempts at reform have failed, leaving the UK with a mainly appointed second chamber. The greater part of its membership has been appointed by successive prime ministers, with smaller numbers chosen by other party leaders, and non-party 'crossbench' peers nominated since 2000 by an independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. While there are a range of different professions and fields of expertise in the House of Lords it continues to lack democratic legitimacy.

· Lack of protection for citizens' rights The European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law in 1998 (the Human Rights Act), arguably provides inadequate guarantees for the rights of citizens in their relationship with the state. Governments can 'derogate from' (suspend) articles of the Human Rights Act in certain situations.

Media is controlled wealthy, unaccountable business interests For example, the powerful Murdoch group has owned a number of British newspapers simultaneously, including The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun. When Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister in the summer of 2007, almost his first act was to publish a ‘green paper’ entitled The Governance of Britain, which took as its starting point the declining public trust in the democratic process. ‘Action is now needed across the breadth of the political system’, the paper argued, ‘to promote and restore trust in politics and our political institutions.’ The print versions of the leading national newspapers remain wedded to highly partisan approaches to covering UK politics and elections. Cross-ownership of titles and broadcasting by powerful and committed corporate leaders actively trying to sway elections and policy decisions (like Rupert Murdoch) perennially distorts political power away from political equality. Press coverage of the 2016 EU referendum campaign was frequently hyper-partisan, disingenuous or actively misleading (as in claims that Turkey was poised to join the EU). If and when such claims were ever corrected at a media regulator’s request, this happened only after readers had voted.

Lack of meaningful choice Despite the range of parties competing, only two have a realistic chance of gaining power in Westminster. As a result, many people vote for one of the two main parties, which often have similar polices, especially in the period of post-Thatcherite consensus. Even in devolved areas, the contest tends to centre on a two-party system, with the SNP first competing with Labour, and then more recently against the Conservatives, while in Northern Ireland there is a straight contest between Sinn Féin and the DUP. The English regional mayoral elections reflected a battle between the Conservatives and Labour.

Elective Dictatorship : The sovereignty of Parliament, in theory, gives unlimited potential power to government. The powers of the prime minister are largely based on the authority of the unelected monarch. There is no codified UK Constitution so the limits to government power are vague. Parliamentary sovereignty means the government’s powers could be increased without a constitutional safeguard. The prerogative powers of the prime minister are extensive and arbitrary.

The West Lothian Question and EVEL

Devolution has created an imbalance in UK politics, known as the West Lothian Question. The question relates to the fact that Scottish MPs (and Welsh, Northern Irish and London MPs, depending on the issue) can vote on issues that do not affect their constituents but do impact other people. For example, the increase in student tuition fees in England and Wales in 2004 was only passed with the votes of Scottish MPs, while the extension to Sunday trading was defeated in 2016 with the votes of SNP MPs, despite the fact that neither issue would directly affect residents in Scotland. This means that MPs are making decisions about things that affect people who cannot hold them accountable.

Elitist pressure groups Pressure groups do not compete on an equal footing. A small number of pressure groups tend to dominate any political debate at the expense of other interests. British pressure group participation is based on elitism rather than a pluralist system of representation.

An unelected hereditary monarchy and an unelected House of Lords undermine the concept of representative democracy in the UK. The monarch and peers have not been selected to represent any specific section of society and they can only be removed by death or, following the House of Lord Reform Act 2014, resigning or being expelled for failing to attend an entire annual parliamentary session or committing a serious criminal offence. This means there is no way for the public to hold them to account.

Arguments for a democratic deficit

Turnout in elections is in decline

  • Over 80% in immediate post war period 59% 2001

  • Turnout in other elections: PCCs Half under 10%/ Local

  • AV referendum 42%

Apathy – The decline in Social Capital (Robert Putnam)

Opinion Polls show increased cynicism for party politics- particularly after the Expenses Scandal/ perceived ‘spin’ in justification for the Iraq War.

Party membership –declined since196Os- historic low 2012

2016 EU referendum arguably an example of the tyranny of the majority

Democratic Institutions and organisations

Are they Accountable/ Accessible and responsive?


  • FPTP leads to disproportional results= Greens 1.2 million votes=One MP, UKIP 12.6 % of vote= One MP. SNP 4.7% =56 MPs.

  • Commons and Lords are unrepresentative= 29% MP female. They do not reflect the diversity or class profile of the

  • Lords are ‘An affront to democracy’ Nick Clegg

  • Lords reform stalled

  • Unresponsive-Parliament is dominated by the governing party. Iraq War unpopular.

PMs remain too powerful and power is concentrated in N10

Pressure groups exert power and influence with little democratic accountability

  • Unite leader Len McClosky leadership election 17% turnout.

  • Pressure groups can exert unequal influence= insiders, those with greater resources.

  • Much participation in issue groups can be characterised as ‘Slackivist’ or ‘Cheque book participation’

Devolution has resulted in unfair representation =The ‘West Lothian Question’

Counter arguments

Turnout has stabilised:

  • 2010 65.5 2015 65.8

  • Scots Referendum 82% and franchise extended to 16+

  • EU referendum 72%

Other forms of participation have increased

  • Issue pressure groups- half of all have come in to existence in the last 30 years

  • Internet/ Social media- new forms of PG= Occupy, 38 degrees.

  • Party membership has risen dramatically since 2012

  • Elections are fair, open and offer a real choice in 2017

Increased Direct Democracy has given greater opportunity for participation

Proportional systems are now used widely across the UK

The Lords is more diverse than the Commons 36% of new Lords female

  • Lords reform has resulted in more willingness to oppose the government

  • Wright Reforms have improved scrutiny

Pressure Groups allow for representation between elections and representation of minority groups-

  • e.g Stop the War Coalition, Age Concern

Devolved institutions have been a great success and have been given more powers

Is the UK a healthy democracy?

Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Evaluation of elections and democracy

Evidence of a 'participation crisis'

Turnout in UK elections

The UK was seen as a model of democracy but since the 1970s there has been increasing criticism of UK elections and an awareness that that there is an increasing level of disengagement.

The democratic deficit

Is there a participation crisis?

Voter turnout

Falling turnout is thought to be important because it means that if governments are elected on a reduced share of the popular vote this undermines their legitimacy and therefore right to govern. The widespread belief that the government is illegitimate could mean social unrest.-

But, is this really true? Most elections do not deliver what most people think- ie a clear choice of the majority. Almost all Uk governments were not the choice of most people since the combined vote for other parties almost always is larger. As a percentage of the potential electorate, not just those who voted, governments in the UK regularly win with under 30% of the electorate voting for them. In 2019 the Conservative won an 80 seat majority with 43% of the vote. This means that although the UK electoral system routinely fails the basic democratic principle of delivering the choice of the people- governments still govern.

The average turnout at general elections from 1945 to 1997 was 76 per cent. Since then it has been lower. The percentage for 2001 at 59% was the lowest since the end of the First World War in 1918. There has however been a recovery at the last three general elections, although it is still some way from the levels seen at most post-war contests.In the 2019 United Kingdom General Election, voter turnout was 67.3 percent of eligible voters, a 1.5 percent drop compared with the previous general election in 2017. Between 1922 and 1997 voter turnout never fell below 70 percent, but in 2001 it dropped to just 59.4 percent. Since that low point, voter turnout has gradually recovered and reached 72.2 percent in the Brexit Referendum of 2016, which is still some way off the peak of 83.9 percent recorded in the 1950 General Election.

Turnout is even lower, the 'second order' elections, such as local government and the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This may be because voters see these less powerful bodies as unlikely to make a major difference to their lives. referendums have also generally had a low turnout.

In spite of publicity encouraging people to vote, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012 had the lowest average turnout at any UK contest, at 15 per cent. Voters did not fully understand the purpose of these elected individuals. There was a slight improvement to 26 per cent in the 2016 elections.

Are lower turnouts explained by apathy, political cynicism and disengagement from politics. If so this could be a worrying sign that the system of representative democracy is failing to fulfill its most basic function of winning the consent of the people.

However, it may not be so negative since there is a suggestion that low turnouts are the result of 'Hapathy' ie general contentment. There is little difference between the parties and they agree on the basic social and economic structure of our society.Most people may not really mind who wins. An alternative version of this is known as 'hapathy' - a blend of the words 'happiness' and 'apathy', meaning that people are generally contented and see no need to push for political change. This may possibly help to account for the unusually low levels of voter turnout in 2001 and 2005 (the economy was booming and presumably levels of contentment were higher) but not for the 2010 election (which took place against a much less optimistic economic background). To some extent levels of participation depend on the type of issue at stake. Turnout for the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 was 84.6 per cent, while 72.2 per cent of people took part in the June 2016 EU referendum across the UK. These figures suggest that on critical issues affecting the way that the country is governed, people will still express a view.

Also, you can argue that the low turnouts are not what they appear since they vary ( differential turnout) by age group, ethnicity and regions. If the entire population were over 65 years of age turnout would remain above 80%. Some more middle-class constituencies have high turnouts with poorer constituencies, ethnics minorities and the young voting the least. This may present a different problem since it may lead politicians to disregard the interests of these groups- e.g pensions are protected but student fees increased.

There is also a study which suggests that voter turnout figures tend to be inaccurate by up to 10% since they do not reflect students, second homes and multiple addresses. the authors of Aggregate Turnout Is Mismeasured conclude that “turnout measurement errors are so large and varying—comparatively and over time—that many substantive conclusions may be entirely misleading.” Official figures show turnout to have been increasing in every general election since 2001. This alone has been interpreted by some as an encouraging sign of recovery. However, if turnout at general elections really is on average 9.4% higher than previously thought, and if turnout really was as high as 80.3% in 2017, then perhaps our representative democracy is in an even healthier condition than previously thought. Obviously, there are still very real problems. Even accounting for mistakes in the official estimates, turnout has still been concerningly low in recent local, devolved and European elections. Nonetheless, the most pessimistic analysis of UK participation still needs to be reconsidered.

Aggregate Turnout is Mismeasured Jonathan Mellon (University of Manchester) Geoffrey Evans (Nuffield College, Oxford) Edward Fieldhouse (University of Manchester) Jane Green (University of Manchester) Christopher Prosser (University of Manchester) 2018

Party membership

This is another indicator of a participation crisis. Only 1.6 per cent of the electorate now belongs to one of the three main UK-wide political parties, whereas in 1983 the figure was 3.8 per cent. However, this differs significantly from party to party.

· The Conservative Party had just under 150,000 members by 2016, a significant drop from an estimated 400,000 in the mid-1990s.

· The Labour Party's membership increased in the run-up to the 1997 election but fell while the party was in government to around 190,000 members. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has been associated with a remarkable increase in membership, with a total of 515,000 by July 2016.

· The Liberal Democrats had about 70,000 members in the early 2000s, falling to 49,000 during the 2010-15 coalition with the Conservatives. In 2016, they had recovered to about 76,000 members.

Another recent trend has been an increase in the membership of some smaller parties. At the 2015 general election a record 29.4 per cent of the vote went to parties other than the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

However, party membership has increased in the last 5 years for all parties.

Why is this a problem? Because parties perform some vital roles such as formulation policy ideas, which is particularly important in providing the electorate with an alternative to the government's proposals. Parties also select candidates and run campaigns which they fund mostly from their own resources. With a shrinking membership, parties become dependent on big donors such as the unions or business groups which can lead them to favour these interests. Small membership may also be open to selecting more extreme candidates since it is activists and the ideologically committed who are more motivated to join parties. This may lead to the selection of more extreme candidates or local parties becoming out of touch with their MPs.

However, parties are increasing centralised with the leadership exercising considerable control over candidate selection and dominating policy formulation. Fundraising from a broad cross-section of society may be more Democratic if properly regulated.

Alternative Participation?

There are other, less formal ways in which people can get involved in politics. Membership of pressure groups, particularly those concerned with single issues such as the environment, has been increasing. The last two decades have seen numerous well-attended demonstrations on issues as diverse as fuel prices, the Iraq War, fox hunting and student tuition fees. Direct action has become a recognised feature of modern politics, indicating that people may be turning to new methods of expression because they feel that conventional politics has let them down. Society has become more consumerist - people make up their minds more on an individual basis and are used to making choices between different options.

In the last decade, the emergence of social media has enabled people, especially the young, to exchange political views and participate in online campaigns on particular issues, without engaging in the real world. An example of e-democracy is support for e-petitions, which allow people to register a viewpoint online. An e-petition on the Downing Street website in 2007, against proposals for road-charging, was signed by 1.8 million people.

The rise of new forms of political engagement may be seen as a positive development, but it is still a cause for concern that so many people are uninvolved in traditional politics.

Why are these changes happening?

One explanation for political apathy: a lack of interest or awareness of contemporary events and political issues that affect society, might be the complexity of a globalised world. Do governments really have much control over the economic and environmental problems they face?

The population in the UK has never been so wealthy, so well educated and so old. The advantages of education and the disadvantages of less education have become more significant, particularly since the end of the war. To leave school in 2021 with few qualifications is to be set on a path which will be much less easy to escape from than in the 1950s. In the 2016 referendum, the single significant factor in determining how people would vote was education with people with a university degrees overwhelmingly voting remain and those without one voting leave. This cuts across traditional party loyalty and may lead many to view the largely university educated politicians as an out-of-touch elite.

The age of insecurity, overwork and disappointment

Increased education may also have contributed to greater cynicism and awareness of the failures of representative politics. Political journalism is more critical and the media is far less deferential than in the past. From That Was The Week That Was to Spitting Image politicians figures of fun and derision. Social media and the internet may also have contributed to an echo chamber effect where people hear their own views reflected back in their choice of news sources. Wealth and consumerism may mean that our priorities focus on the consumption of food and entertainment in a distraction culture. It's also the case that citizens of the UK in 2021 have less time for quiet leisure than people of the 1950s- work and emails pursue people into their homes and the majority of parent couples work full time. This 'time squeeze' has increased stress and anxiety in the context of an economy which delivers more choice and more wealth, but less security. Zero hours and the decline of jobs for life means a prevailing culture of anxiety. Therefore there is little time for politics and a deep sense of impatience which leads politicians to promise big to get elected and to get the attention of the electorate and therefore inevitably disappoint when in power.

Another factor that helps explain both declining voter turnout and increasing interest in alternative types of political activity is the generally negative public perception of politicians in recent decades. Examples of dishonest behaviour by MPs and broken electoral promises, together with a general sense that voting does not change anything, have reduced levels of trust in democratic politics.

2019 Audit of Political Engagement The Hansard Society conducts an annual survey. It shows increasing disengagement and increasing criticism of politics. In 2019 it showed the growing attraction of populist 'strong leaders.

'Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that ‘Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful’. It is unsurprising that the ‘rigged system’ narrative caught fire in the United States, where money in politics is highly visible: yet the UK’s very different system is judged in much the same way.'

'The most headline-grabbing finding from the Audit was that, by a margin of 54–23, Britons agree that the country needs ‘a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’. The support for a ‘strong leader’, with its echoes of Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin, is disquieting'. Uk citizens had a high regard for the army.

'Roughly a third of people say they do not want to be involved ‘at all’ in either local or national decision-making: a rise of nearly 10% since last year'

The survey also suggests that the majority of people have little or no interest in any kind of political participation

Which of the following would you be prepared to do if you felt strongly about something?