Democracy begins at home

11 Jan 08
ALAN LEAMAN | These have been a bad few months for democracy. Christmas was dominated by grim news from Kenya and Pakistan. Russia and South Africa are also causing concern.

These have been a bad few months for democracy. Christmas was dominated by grim news from Kenya and Pakistan. Russia and South Africa are also causing concern.

It appears that the global march of liberal, multiparty politics is halted, if not reversed.

For the West, this is depressing. But it also risks making us smug. Our democracies are deep-rooted, stable, peaceful, fair and pluralist. Aren’t they?

Well, yes, they are. And the European Union’s embrace of new democracies such as Spain, Portugal and the ex-Communist states of Eastern Europe was one of the triumphs of the latter part of the twentieth century.

But let’s not get carried away.

In Britain, questions have been raised about how we changed prime minister last year without a single vote being cast by anyone, even within the Labour Party. And last autumn’s election-that-never-was drew attention to the fact that the power to decide the poll date still lies with the incumbent government.

In many other countries these features would raise hackles as well as eyebrows. There is a good case for revisiting them.

Three larger issues loom, however. First is how we pay for politics. After recent difficulties with loans and proxy donations, everyone agrees that further reform is necessary. As transparency has improved and the reputation of politics has slipped, fewer people are willing to donate. Our leading parties find it more and more difficult to make ends meet and, with falling memberships, are being hollowed out by the process.

Parties need to fund their campaigning, infrastructure, recruitment and policy work. The pressure to spend will grow as voters become used to high-quality marketing and communications techniques in other aspects of their lives. Like them or not, we need the parties to be financially healthy.

But the rows over funding ‘scandals’ are making it more difficult to come up with the right solutions. Winning consent for reforms such as increased contributions from the taxpayer is almost impossible when the reputation of party fundraising has fallen through the floor.

The second democratic issue is how we share power. This flows from our devolution settlement, which was deliberately asymmetric. Part of the purpose was to encourage different arrangements in different parts of the country.

The Scottish National Party government in Scotland will test this further. First Minister Alex Salmond and colleagues are keen to push the limits of the settlement and are not shy of creating tension where it helps their case.

There are two immediate issues. One revolves around responsibility for finance, which has not been devolved to anywhere near the same extent as legislative power. The second is England, where there will be continuing clashes between models that devolve to English institutions, and others that attempt to decentralise within England.

To ease the problems we can expect further moves to reduce the number of MPs from Scotland — and perhaps from Wales as well.

The bigger difficulty relates to public attitudes, which support variations in theory but often dislike them in practice. One patient organisation complained recently that different parts of the UK had adopted their own priorities on health.

This challenges the case for devolution at its heart. Our politicians need to argue the case for difference all over again.

Our third challenge is more speculative — how votes in the ballot box relate to seats in Parliament. With an election likely in 2009, this will become more important this year.

There is a conspiracy not to mention it, but the Conservatives are now the victims of Britain’s first-past-the-post system. And the level of bias in our electoral system looks set to continue.

One calculation suggests that if Labour and the Conservatives had level-pegged in votes in 2005, Labour would have secured 336 seats and the Conservatives only 220. At the next election a six-point lead could give Labour a majority of 100, while David Cameron would probably need a gap of nine points just to gain an overall majority.

Forthcoming boundary changes make only small changes. The Conservatives could easily outpoll Labour by some distance in 2009 but be stuck as the second party in the House of Commons.

This result would create a real crisis of legitimacy, and problems for all three political parties, particularly if they have to negotiate their way through a hung Parliament.

Some argue that this is the rub of the green. Democrats should be more concerned. We are used to the argument that electoral reform would benefit a third party. The next election might show that it is mainly in the interests of Britain’s first party — and of the voters who want to choose their government.

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