Political and constitutional reform
The relationship between people and power is unarguably in poor shape today. The anecdotal evidence is strong enough. Radio phone-ins fizzle with rage for politicians. But the research more than backs it up.
Turnout at elections continues to sink. From 1945 until 1997, the average turnout at General Elections was over 76%, peaking at 83% in 1950. In the most recent elections, it has hovered at around 60%. Meanwhile, membership of political Parties is at an all time low.
Of course, politicians are aware of this. Some put it down to the recent expenses scandal, but voter turnout plummeted after the General Election 17 years ago, and remains low. I suspect for most people, the scandal merely confirmed a prejudice that was already there. Others attribute it to apathy, but that too must be wrong. A million people marched in London against the war in Iraq. Half a million people took to the streets in opposition to the ban on hunting. Nearly 4.5 million people, or one in ten adults belong to environmental and conservation groups.
The cause is not boredom, or a temporary anger about a single, albeit major scandal. It surely has more to do with disaffection with the way we do politics in this country.
People can sense that politics has become so remote that no matter how hard they may try to exert meaningful influence, they are unlikely to succeed. The fact that even a media heavyweight like Jeremy Paxman has been willing to admit that he didn’t bother to vote at the last election surely tells us something must change.
British democracy has continually evolved. From the first Reform Act of 1832, through various improvements to the Act, right up until the moment every man and woman over the age of 18 was able to vote, our democracy has broadly kept pace with the times. Each step involved handing more power to more people, and each was strongly resisted at the time. But no one today regrets the direction of travel. After all, for voters at least, the alternative to improving democracy is walking away from it, and there isn’t an example in history of that leading to a happy ending.
However things ground to a standstill forty or so years ago, and de- spite monumental changes to the way we live, not least because of the internet, our politicians have stubbornly dug their heels in and resisted meaningful reform.
Locally, voters are continually demoralised by how little power their elected Councillors have and how often they are simply overruled on planning issues by distant, unelected quangos. The national equation is only marginally more tipped in people’s favour. For the 1,500 or so days in between general elections – when people can choose between (at a stretch) three political parties – they are denied any access at all to the decision-making process. Once the polls have closed, voters have no choice but to accept one often-bad decision after another.
Nor can voters properly hold their own representative to account. MPs are almost entirely insulated from constituents in between elections. Ask any MP, and they will concede that once the election has passed, the pressure is largely from Party, not people, even in the more marginal seats. Voters know that in between elections, no matter how poorly their MP performs, there is no mechanism allowing them to intervene. Unless jailed for more than a year, an MP is inviolable.
For voters whose MPs fail to conduct surgeries, or who rarely turn up to vote in Parliament, or who systematically break important pre-election promises, this is already known. But on the back of the expenses scandal, the problem was highlighted with appalling clarity on a national stage, and politicians of all parties realised immediately that they needed to act – or at least appear to act.
David Cameron talked vaguely but enthusiastically about Direct Democracy. Nick Clegg went further, promising something akin to a new Great Reform Act. All three Party leaders promised to bring in a system of Recall that would allow voters to sack underperforming MPs. What- ever the outcome of the election, we thought, politics would change.
Specifically, we would edge towards a more direct form of democracy.
Direct Democracy is a simple concept, and it holds the key, in my view, to repairing the relationship between people and power. What it means is that ordinary people can intervene on any political issue, at any time of their choosing. With sufficient popular support, existing laws can be challenged, new laws can be proposed, and the direction of political activity, at local and national level, can be determined by people rather than distant elites. This would radically transform politics. Not only would voters be able to stop unpopular policies from becoming law; they would be able to kick-start positive changes. The whole process of calling a referendum would ensure more widespread and much better informed debate. We would also see greater legitimacy given to controversial decisions.
The key is that decisions should always taken at the lowest possible level. For example, if there is a proposal to build an incinerator in a particular borough, people living in that borough would be able to ‘earn’ the right to hold a referendum if they manage to collect a specified number of signatures.
We would need debate about the kind of issues that could be influenced, made or reversed via referendum nationally. Constitutional issues, like the transfer of powers to the EU, would clearly justify use of a national ballot initiative. We would need rules ensuring balanced coverage of an issue, fair expenditure by interest groups, honest wording of questions, the number of signatures required to trigger a referendum, and so on. But these problems can be overcome.
A fundamental component of Direct Democracy is Recall. Its beauty is in its simplicity. If a percentage of constituents – usually 20% – sign a petition in a given time frame, they earn the right to have a referendum in which voters are asked if they want to recall their MP. If more than half of voters say yes, there is a subsequent by-election. At a stroke, Recall would convey a sense of empowerment, and help settle the relationship between people and power. Under a system of Recall, it would make no sense for voters to engage in wholesale dismissal of politicians. They would have the representatives they deserve, and crucially, even in safe seats which would become a thing of the past.
Direct Democracy didn’t make it into the respective manifestos at the last General Election. Recall did however – in all three. But when Nick Clegg was asked to draft a Recall Bill, he delivered a proposal that is so far removed from genuine Recall, it is Recall only in name. Instead of empowering voters to sack MPs in whom they have lost confidence, which is how Recall works the world over, the Lib Dem leader’s version hands power up to a committee of fellow MPs. What was supposed to be a tool to enable voters to hold the institution to account has been transformed into a tool for enabling the institution to hold itself to ac- count. The proposal was nothing more than a cynical attempt to convey an impression of democratic reform without actually empowering vot- ers in any sense at all.
Asked to examine the draft Bill, the Political & Constitutional Re- form Committee said that the Government’s version of Recall “would reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.” It is worth noting that not a single reform organisation, or a single reform-minded MP, backed Clegg’s Bill .
Clegg has been quite clear that the reason he has backed away from genuine Recall stems from a fear of what he terms ‘kangaroo courts’. It is at root an argument against democracy itself, because under a genu- ine Recall system, the only court is the constituency, and the only jurors are voters. Recall is not a new concept. It exists in 19 US states, 6 Can- tons in Switzerland, Venezuela, the Philippines, British Columbia in Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and Argentina, among other countries. Where Recall happens, there are no known examples of successful vex- atious recall attempts. In short, voters can be trusted.
It is this fear of the ‘mob’ that has prevented meaningful reform for years. Precisely the same arguments were used to prevent women being given the vote, and the same arguments are now used to row back direct democracy. We hear, for example, that direct democracy will give newspapers too much influence. But newspapers already have far more influence over vulnerable and frightened MPs than they ever could over a notional audience of 60 million. The same is true of special interest groups. Ask any lobbyist whether he would rather persuade a government minister over an expen- sive lunch, or instead seek to win a proposal in a public referendum. The answer will invariably be lunch with the government minister.
We hear that that policy is too complex for ordinary voters. But no one is suggesting a form of government-by-referendum. Referendums would necessarily only be used where the demand is very high. Besides, a referendum, even one dealing with a complicated subject, would prompt precisely the kind of public engagement that politicians claim they want to encourage.
Nor is the greatest fear – of the ‘mob’ – borne out by practical experience. In 2009, a nation with a reputation for insularity was asked to tighten its citizenship laws, making it harder for foreigners to gain naturalisation. Much to the surprise of international commentators, the proposal was rejected by a margin of almost two to one. This country can justly claim to be the most democratic on earth: Switzerland.
It is worth remembering Edmund Burke’s observation that “in all disputes between people and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.” Quite.
Tragically, ideas about Direct Democracy evaporated shortly after the last General Election. Only Recall remained a real prospect, but in a form so perverse that even the most reform-minded MPs would have voted against it. The idea effectively died, and voters today are left once again with the feeling that they have been duped, that our leaders were merely engaging in a cynical stunt. Politicians must realise that the very same stunt only strengthens arguments in favour of political reform.
Zac Goldsmith MP was the editor of the Ecologist Magazine for 10 years until he was selected as the Conservative Party Parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park and North Kingston. He was elected in
May 2010. In 2005 he oversaw a wide-ranging review of environmental policy for the Conservative Party. Zac’s book, The Constant Economy, was published by Atlantic in September 2009.