What could be done to reform the system and improve democracy?

What has been done recently?

While the UK political system has continued to evolve through much of its history, 1997 saw the election of a Labour government with a reform agenda and a huge majority in Parliament.  From 1997  democracy has been extended ,devolution has enhanced accountability and participation by decentralising decision-making power and creating new elected institutions. New positions in local government, such as elected mayors and police and crime commissioners (PCCs), are also directly elected. As a result of the Recall of MPs Act 2015, constituents can recall their MP if he or she is imprisoned or suspended from the House of Commons.

Referendums have been held on UK-wide issues (electoral reform and EU membership), sub-national issues (devolution) and local issues (directly elected mayors). This has introduced an important element of direct democracy into the UK political system. Turnout has varied, from very high levels of participation in the Scottish independence referendum to very low turnout in referendums on elected mayors.

E-petitions that attract sufficient signatures (e.g. 100,000 signatures for Westminster petitions) are debated in the House of Commons or in the devolved institutions.

Party reforms

Labour and Conservative party members play a greater role in electing the party leader, selecting candidates and proposing policy than was the case before the 1990s. New categories of membership (e.g. registered supporter) have also been created. Labour, the SNP and the Greens have seen the number of party members increase significantly in recent years.

However,2015 Corbyn was only just allowed to stand for the leadership at all by the naïve generosity of some centrist MPs in getting him 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) signatures. His runaway victory, with over three-fifths support amongst the party’s newly enlarged membership, was greeted with horror by the PLP’s centre-right, but showed how astonishingly out of touch most Labour MPs had got from their activists. 

What could be done to further reform the system?

In 2014 the system for registering to vote in the UK was changed. Before the change there was household registration, which meant that one householder could register anyone living in the property on their behalf. Even those who were temporarily away from home, such as students, could still vote. This was replaced by individual voter registration, which meant that each individual was responsible for registering themselves at whatever address they considered to be permanent. It is estimated that about 1 million voters lost the right to vote in 2015 because their household registration was not transferred to individual registration. The main concern here is that most of the ‘missing voters’ were students and young people who do not have permanent addresses. Attention has therefore shifted from encouraging such people to vote to encouraging them to register in the first place. The Electoral Commission’s analysis shows that “areas with a high concentration of certain demographics – students, private renters and especially young adults” are particularly in danger of having low registration numbers. 

The new 2022 boundaries (five years on from the 2017 General Election) are going to be based on the Individual Registration electoral roll from December 2015 – years out of date. The Electoral Commission recommended using a more up to date register and a longer changeover to the new system, but the government rejected their advice. Since December 2015 millions of people have joined the register, but none of them will be taken in to account for the new boundaries. 

The Electoral Reform Society suggests:

Registration is a bigger issue in the USA than in the UK. This is because members of ethnic minorities in the USA typically do not register in as large numbers as the white population. In the UK there have been demands to make voting more convenient. In particular, there have been proposals to introduce online voting or voting at post offices and even supermarkets. Online voting is the most popular proposal, not least because we are becoming increasingly used to taking part in online surveys and polls or e-petitions, giving rise to the term ‘clickocracy’. 

Encourage wider use of postal voting, and to allow electronic voting ('e-voting'). These methods are open to questions about security. When all-postal ballots were trialled in four regions at the 2004 European Parliament elections, there were complaints of an increase in electoral fraud, including multiple voting and intimidation. Voters also disliked being deprived of other means of voting. E-voting is open to problems arising from cyber attack and the possibility of online impersonation of voters. The need to access technology may also discriminate against older people, who are less familiar with it, and poorer voters who cannot afford computers.

There has also been a suggestion that the voting age be reduced from 18 to 16, which was allowed in the 2014 Scottish referendum, but is still not the practice in UK elections. Another radical proposal is to make voting compulsory. This is the practice in certain countries, including Belgium and Australia, where failure to turn up at the polling station attracts a small fine