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Reform Magazine | November 29, 2023

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A good question: Is democracy broken?

A good question: Is democracy broken?

One question, four answers

‘The mother of parliaments is falling apart’

Our country has never been more divided, unable to listen to people with opposing views, or even to discuss difficult issues courteously with each other. People say regularly on the doorstep: ‘What is the point of voting? My vote never counts.’ That is true for most Westminster seats, caused by the first past the post voting system which means that many seats haven’t changed hands in more than a century. In the last general election, only 553 votes in a handful of marginal seats decided the result. This meant that all the political parties bombarded those few seats. And all of this before we even start on Brexit!

Worse, our parliament, the mother of parliaments, is falling apart. Literally, the fabric is so dangerous, following decades of little or no repairs, we will have to vacate it for years of restoration; and metaphorically, our balanced (or hung) parliament can’t agree on anything. No wonder the public puts politicians at the bottom of the popularity list.

But there is another side. As a member of the House of Lords, and as President of the Liberal Democrats, I meet many people across the country. One of my great delights is hearing of people taking action locally – living beacons of democracy. Some are politicians, but many are not. …

Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrat Party and Vice Chair of Christians in Parliament


‘Democracy is never unbroken’

We should get one thing clear straight away: democracy is never ‘unbroken’. This may sound like mere detail, splitting the hairs of pin-dancing angels, but it is important. Democracy works well in some places, poorly in others, and not at all in many more, but it is never perfect, in the sense of not needing any improvement. It’s not either/or. The reason is that, frustratingly, democracy is what we make it, and as we are notably imperfect, broken beings, so are our democratic creations.

In many countries, including our own, the structure of democracy still functions very well. Parties publish manifestos that are widely available to the electorate. Polling stations are accessible, well run, and free from pressure or interference. Democratic results are respected. Elected officials are cognisant of their representative and legislative responsibilities. Structurally speaking, the answer appears to be no.

Yet, all these structures are embedded in a rather less secure culture, in which a proper scepticism has long ago shaded over into a virulent cynicism. We don’t read manifestos, and claim not to trust them (sometimes with good reasons). At least a third of us, rising to 70% in some elections, don’t ever trouble polling stations (or vote online). We claim that the representatives we do elect are self-serving, not in touch with the people, and legislate in nefarious ways (as the saying attributed to Bismarck goes: You don’t want to know how laws or sausages are actually made.) We haven’t reached the stage they have in the US, where almost any election result seems to attract contesting lawyers like wasps to jam, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Culturally speaking, the answer seems to be yes…

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at the religion and society thinktank Theos

‘We must re-engage’

Democracy isn’t broken. But party politics are certainly creaking round the edges.

Democracy is not just about voting. Rather, a healthy democracy enables us to manage conflict within a society. We each have different perspectives and conflicting priorities. Democracy enables us to live as a society where these conflicts are resolved without resorting to tyranny and military force. At its best, democracy enables people to feel heard and represented, even when they are in a minority.

So what is going on at the moment? Why does it feel as if our democratic institutions are insufficient to the task they are facing?

In some ways, democracy is actually working as it should. The institutions are doing their jobs when it comes to Brexit: the courts have ensured due process around decision making; parliamentarians are reflecting the (divided) will of the people.

But it certainly doesn’t feel as if our democracy is healthy. Party politics is messy. At the heart of the Brexit trauma are the chasms revealed within society, which were disguised for so many years by party political arrangements. Instead of making decisions on a purely economic basis, other factors are at play in the way people decide to vote. Cultural differences, attitudes to social issues, a sense of what it is to be British. These factors do not simply align with one party or another. …

Rachel Lampard is Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team.


‘Democracy is the answer’

There are many divisions in British politics at the moment, but if you are seeking something near consensus, the question of whether politics is broken would be a good place to start. On that there’s very broad agreement. With parliament and the executive in confrontational deadlock, there’s a huge problem. Public dissatisfaction is high. In the UK, we have an uncodified constitution, developed by historical accident rather than planning. That’s often been applauded as flexible, but it is clearly a hopelessly tangled knot.

This has led some people to suggest the problem is democracy. I’d very firmly disagree.

Rather, democracy is the answer to our current problems – a functional, modern democracy, of the kind that we can look to with envy in our Scandinavian neighbours, or, for the English, across the border in Scotland. We need a parliament that reflects the will of the people, and for votes to count in elections. We need strong, properly representative local government, ensuring that most decisions are made locally, by the people affected. Neither of these hold true in our current system. That is at the foundation of our problems.

In 2017, research by the Electoral Reform Society found the first past the post electoral system, aside from being unfair to the 68% of voters whose votes didn’t count, unable to deliver an overall majority – its chief objective. ‘Take back control’, the rallying cry of the EU referendum, was a correct slogan, though aimed at the wrong target…

Jonathan Bartley is Co-leader of the Green Party


These are extracts from an article that was published in the September 2019 edition of Reform

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