Democracy in Crisis: What is to be done?

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British protesters demanding a fair vote (Image Credit: The Times UK)

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” These were the words uttered by Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg address, when he assured that the soldiers who gave their lives for the causes of liberty and freedom would not have died in vain. Yet, a century and a half on, it seems that democracy is in crisis. With a 2022 ONS survey indicating that over 50% of the population distrust the government, it is clear that people’s faith in the British government have been shaken to the core. With the erosion of the core values of democracy – that of good governance on behalf of the people, defense of rights and liberties, justice, accountability and representation, it is clear that reforms are once again necessary to ensure that the new generation believe in this system once again.

To understand the current crisis, one must examine the fundamental characteristics that makes a democracy just. First and perhaps most important is the concept of rights; whether they be individual or collective, the role of modern democracies is to rule “in the interests of the governed”, in the words of Jeremy Bentham. As he further writes in Supply Without Burthen – “Right is with me the child of law” – it is thus the function and obligation of government to guarantee these rights to life, liberty, property, and security (and all that entails, such as the right to free expression) – through, as stated by Bentham, the legislation of laws. Second, is the idea of justice – how the state reacts to the infringement of the laws of the land and one’s human rights. While certain rights and liberties must be guaranteed, as Mill notes, “power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will… to prevent harm to others.” While there may be some dispute over the scope of this “harm” (for instance, while it is clear that violent actions against another person should rightfully be punished, should laws prevent economic competition which harms one’s interests but not themselves?), it is nonetheless clear that under a democratic system, governments should, to some degree, place “restraints upon the actions of other people… if they are injurious to others.” Most intuitively, democracy by its very definition means ‘rule by the demos’ – and thus must be representative of the people.

Of course, while the currently predominant system of representative democracy, whereby the people elect representatives who espouse the view of the majority in their constituency, is perhaps the only feasible method of democracy, given the impracticality of instituting a direct democracy in modern nation-states, there are several criticisms that can be levied against it. First, the corruption and deceit of public officials can brew voter apathy. Even a century before the ubiquitous scandals accompanying modern democracy, Mill identifies this possibility, stating “the people best equipped to rule… are those least likely to want to. The qualities most likely to lead to success in politics – flattery, duplicity, manipulation – are the ones we would least wish to have in our rulers.” Indeed, with sleaze and misconduct allegations rampant in recent governments – such as the ‘cash for questions’ scandal with Owen Patterson, bullying with Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab, ‘partygate’ with Boris Johnson and sexual assault with Chris Pincher, these allegations all the more egregious in the cases of bullying as Patel, Williamson and Raab were cabinet ministers and with partygate as Johnson was the Prime Minister himself – it is no wonder that faith in democracy is shaken.

Another crucial flaw is the system itself – single-member plurality, otherwise known as first-past-the-post (FPTP) – used in British general elections. Such a system is disproportionate and unrepresentative, with the candidates in a constituency having to just win a plurality of votes in order to be elected. A number of problems arises from this system. First, individual seats are often won without majority support in a constituency (with only 37 out of 650 seats being won with a majority vote in 2019) – thereby reducing the legitimacy of MPs as representatives. Furthermore, as a result of this, minor parties that represent significant minority opinions are denied meaningful representation. For example, in the 2019 General Election, the Liberal Democrats won a national vote share of 11.6% yet only won eleven seats as their support base was spread out nationally; an increase of 4.2% from the 2017 election but resulting in a net loss of one seat). Further, an increase in ‘safe seats,’ with only 67 seats being won by a margin of less than 5% most recently, means that millions of votes, 22 million or 70.8% of electorate, to be exact, are wasted. Finally, under FPTP, the share of seats won by each party may not correspond to their share of the national vote. For instance, in 2019, despite the Conservatives winning 42.4% of the national vote (only 2.4% more than Labour), they won an astounding 365 seats (56.2% of total seats), giving them an 80-seat majority in Parliament. By contrast, had the UK instituted a more proportional electoral system, such as the Party List Proportional Representation (List PR), they would have won 288 seats (44.3% of total seats) – certainly the largest party in the Commons, but with a much more even distribution between the parties which roughly correspond to their vote share. As such, it is clear that the flawed electoral system in the UK contributes to a feeling of powerlessness and disillusionment on politics and democracy amongst the electorate, most particularly the young – with a turnout of 47% in the 2019 elections amongst people aged 18-24 – and undermine the idea of a government ruled by the people.

Wide-ranging reforms are necessary in order to restore trust in democracy. In the case of sleaze and deceit amongst elected representatives, there is a twofold solution. First, as Montesquieu suggests, is the doctrine of separation of powers – “there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive.” With the British constitution not being codified, and Parliament having the power to legislate new laws, the “judiciary does no more, or less… than carry out its constitutional function of interpreting and applying the law enacted by Parliament.” While the Supreme Court can determine if a governmental minister or institution has acted beyond what is allowed in their remits or issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ if they find that a governmental act does not comply with the ECHR, they may not overturn Acts of Parliament due to the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty. Furthermore, given that the Lord Chancellor still has some oversight to the appointment of new judges, the independence of the judiciary may be in doubt, especially as the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution. The Guardian found that “in the last two years, the UK’s highest court made seven decisions in which… [it] assumed a position “more palatable” to the government.” Thus, by devolving the power to strike down unconstitutional laws and codifying the British constitution, it guarantees the independence of the judiciary, which can then more fully act as a check on the power of governments and unlawful actions on the part of representatives. Second, as Mill proposes, “there should be a limit on the money people are permitted to spend on their election campaign… [and] that members of the government should not be paid.” While there is already a limit on spending in campaigns – with each political party being capped at £30,000 for each constituency that it contests in a general election – MPs are paid generously for their service, with a base salary of £84,144 and allowances of up to £9000 on stationary and business costs, as well as an additional salary based on their role in government (from £20,261 as a whip to £100,819 as Attorney General). With the income of MPs being at such high levels – almost triple the average UK salary of £33,000 – it runs the risk of becoming an “object of desire to adventurers,” as Mill puts it. Thus, by reducing MPs salaries to the mean rate of income, it will restore trust and accountability amongst the representatives, as these roles are no longer as attractive to those who aspire to the position due to pretensions of self-enrichment; rather, public servants will be dedicated to serving and governing in the interests of the people, and conversely, the people will restore their faiths in a democratic system of governance. Furthermore, by changing the current FPTP electoral system to a more proportional one, such as AMS (additional member system), not only does the list element increase representation of smaller parties, voters can also ticket split – meaning that they support a candidate from one party, and one from a different party in the list section – leading to an increased element of voter choice. As such, more will be encouraged to come out and vote, as they now have a meaningful say in electing and voting for parties they support in Parliament.

A number of problems plague democracy today – sleaze and deceit from representatives, and an unfair electoral system. However, such plagues are not irreversible. By increasing the independence of the judiciary, reducing the pay of MPs to in line with average salaries, and finally reforming the electoral system, the ideas of justice, accountability, service and representation that are the tenets of democracy can be restored, alongside the people’s faith in British democracy.

Written by Justin Kim

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