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Democracy in the UK: Is it fit for purpose?

Palace of Westminster, London, United Kingdom


The UK is often seen as a democratic country, with regular elections and a system of government that is accountable to the people. Democracy, the system of government employed in the UK, is designed so that the power is held by the people, either directly or through elected representatives.


However, there are concerns about the state of democracy in the UK. Chief among these are voter apathy, whether the First Past The Post System is fit for purpose, how we can increase transparency and the role media bias plays in our politics. In this article, we’ll explore all three in depth.

Voter Apathy Voter turnout in elections has been declining in recent years. Voter apathy is a growing problem in the UK. The voter turnout in the 2019 general election was just 67.3%, the lowest since 2010. Low voter turnout is a concern because it can lead to a lack of representation, a lack of accountability, and a lack of legitimacy for elected officials. Voter apathy can largely be attributed to one of the following five causes:


  • Disillusionment with Politics Many people are disillusioned with politics, politicians, and the political process. They feel that politicians do not listen to their concerns and that their votes do not make a difference.

  • Lack of Trust There is a lack of trust in politicians and political parties. Scandals and broken promises have led to a loss of trust in the political system.

  • The Complexity of the Political System The UK political system can be complex and difficult to understand. Many people find it hard to engage with politics because they do not understand how it works.

  • Lack of Information Many people do not have access to reliable information about politics and political parties. This can make it hard for them to make informed decisions about who to vote for.

  • Busy Lives Many people lead busy lives and do not have the time to engage with politics. They may be more focused on their day-to-day lives and may not see the importance of voting.

However, there are ways to combat this. Education is key to combatting voter apathy. We need to educate people about the political system and the importance of voting. This can be done through schools, community groups, and online resources. We also need to simplify the political system which can be complex and difficult to understand. Simplifying the language used in political debates and making the voting process more straightforward could dramatically increase public engagement.


Finally, using technology can be a powerful tool to combat voter apathy. Social media can be used to engage with voters and provide them with information about politics. Technology can also make the voting process more convenient; many people lead busy lives and do not have the time to engage in politics. Despite the offer of postal voting, we need to make voting more convenient for them. This could involve introducing early voting or making voting available on weekends or online voting could also be introduced to make the voting process more accessible.


In 2016, the American human-centred design agency IDEO was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Registrar to create a solution that addresses the majority of these concerns. You can read the IDEO case study here and/or watch the video below:

You can also explore more about upgrading democracy for the internet era in Pia Mancini’s TED Talk:


Another way to combat voter apathy is to make voting compulsory. This means that people are required to participate in the electoral process by law. While this system is not widely used around the world, there are a number of countries that have implemented compulsory political voting laws.



Parliament House, Canberra, Australia.


Australia is perhaps the most well-known example of a country with mandatory political voting laws. Since 1924, Australian citizens have been required to participate in federal elections, as well as in state and local elections in some jurisdictions. Those who fail to vote without a valid excuse can be fined. While the system has been criticized by some as being overly punitive, it has also been credited with helping to maintain high voter turnout and engagement in Australian politics.


In Europe, citizens of Belgium are required to participate in all elections, including federal, regional, and European Parliament elections. Those who do not vote can face a fine, although this is rarely enforced. Like Australia, Belgium has high voter turnout rates, which are often attributed to its compulsory voting system.


Compulsory voting is most widely used across South America with Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay all employing the system. Each country's laws differ slightly but voters are universally required to vote in all elections and face penalties such as fines and restrictions of government services if they do not. Overall, this has led to more inclusive politics with high turnout rates.


While there are some criticisms of the system, such as concerns about individual freedom and the effectiveness of penalties for noncompliance, it has also been credited with helping to maintain high levels of voter engagement and turnout. Whether or not mandatory voting is the right approach for a particular country is ultimately a matter of debate, but it is clear that it has had a significant impact on the political climates of the countries that have implemented it.


Fixing First Past the Post

In addition, many people feel that the current First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system means that they are forced to choose between the two major parties rather than being able to vote equitably.


This fuels concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of a few political parties and politicians. The UK has traditionally been a two-party system, with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party dominating national politics. However, in recent years, smaller parties such as the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats have gained significant support in some regions.


One solution to this could be the implementation of proportional representation (PR). PR systems aim to allocate seats in proportion to the votes each party receives, ensuring that the distribution of power accurately reflects the will of the electorate. Notably, New Zealand has been using the PR system for nearly 30 years. The following case study follows their successful implementation of proportional representation, discussing the challenges faced, steps taken, and the impact on political representation.

 

The Case Study:


New Zealand's Path to Proportional Representation New Zealand serves as an excellent example of the successful implementation of a proportional representation system, specifically the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. Prior to the adoption of MMP in 1996, New Zealand utilized a First Past the Post (FPTP) system, which often led to unrepresentative outcomes and a lack of diversity in elected officials.


The Journey to PR

  1. Growing Dissatisfaction with FPTP: The movement towards PR began in the late 1980s, as public dissatisfaction with the FPTP system grew. Critics argued that the system favoured large parties, leading to a concentration of power and underrepresentation of smaller parties and minority voices.

  2. The Royal Commission on the Electoral System: In response to public calls for change, the government established the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1985. The commission examined various electoral systems and recommended the adoption of MMP, which combines elements of PR and FPTP systems.

  3. Referendums and Public Support: Two referendums were held, one in 1992 and another in 1993, where the public voted on whether to adopt MMP as the new electoral system. The 1993 referendum resulted in 54% of voters supporting the change, paving the way for the implementation of MMP in the 1996 general elections.

The Implementation Process

  1. Electoral Boundaries and Seat Allocation: The transition to MMP required a re-drawing of electoral boundaries to create new electorates. Additionally, new rules were established to allocate seats to parties based on their share of the party vote.

  2. Party List Selection: Parties were required to create lists of candidates, ranked in order of preference, to fill the proportional representation seats. This provided the opportunity for parties to increase diversity among their candidates, ensuring a wider range of voices were represented.

  3. Voter Education: The government and the Electoral Commission invested in voter education campaigns to ensure the public understood the new system and how their votes would be counted. This included public information sessions, brochures, and online resources.

The Impact of Proportional Representation

Since implementing MMP, New Zealand has seen a significant increase in political diversity and representation. Smaller parties have gained seats in parliament, ensuring a wider range of perspectives are considered in policymaking. Additionally, the representation of women, Māori, and other minority groups has improved, creating a more inclusive political landscape.


Conclusion

The successful implementation of proportional representation in New Zealand demonstrates that change is possible when there is broad public support and a commitment to a more inclusive democracy. Through careful planning, voter education, and a focus on diversity, PR systems can empower citizens and ensure that their voices are heard in the halls of power.

 

Transparency in Politics

Whilst both IDEO’s LA County voter system reinvention and the implementation of PR could help combat voter apathy the UK democratic system also faces concerns about the role of money in politics, with some arguing that wealthy individuals and corporations have too much influence over the political process.


This has spawned calls for greater transparency in politics, with some arguing that political donations should be made public and that politicians should be more accountable for their actions. There have also been calls for greater involvement of ordinary citizens in the political process, including through citizen assemblies.


Citizen assemblies are a form of participatory democracy that involves a randomly selected group of citizens who come together to deliberate on a specific issue or set of issues. These assemblies can be seen as a way to give ordinary citizens a greater voice in the decision-making process, and they have been used successfully in a number of countries around the world.

  • Ireland's Citizen Assembly on Abortion: In 2016, the Irish government convened a citizen assembly to consider the country's abortion laws. The assembly was made up of 99 citizens who were selected to reflect the diversity of Irish society. Over the course of several months, the assembly heard from experts and advocates on both sides of the issue and ultimately recommended that the country's strict abortion laws be relaxed. The assembly's recommendations were later taken up by the Irish parliament and were ultimately implemented through a referendum.

  • France's Citizen Convention on Climate: In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a citizen convention on climate change, made up of 150 citizens who were chosen at random. The assembly was tasked with coming up with proposals to reduce France's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. Over the course of several months, the assembly heard from experts and stakeholders and ultimately came up with 149 proposals, including a tax on frequent fliers and a ban on advertising for high-emission products. Macron pledged to implement the proposals that could be implemented through legislation or executive action.

  • Iceland's National Assembly: In 2010, Iceland was facing a severe economic crisis, and the government decided to convene a national assembly to come up with solutions. The assembly was made up of 950 citizens who were selected at random from the country's voter registry. Over the course of a weekend, the assembly deliberated on a range of issues related to the crisis and ultimately came up with a list of recommendations, including the nationalization of the country's banks and the drafting of a new constitution. While not all of the assembly's recommendations were implemented, the process was seen as a success in terms of engaging citizens in the decision-making process.

  • Canada's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform: In 2004, the government of British Columbia in Canada convened a citizens' assembly to consider changes to the province's electoral system. The assembly was made up of 160 citizens who were selected at random from the province's voters' list. Over the course of several months, the assembly heard from experts and stakeholders and ultimately recommended a change to a single transferable vote system. The recommendation was later put to a referendum, but it did not receive the necessary support.

While citizen assemblies are not a panacea for all the challenges facing modern democracies, they are an important tool for promoting democratic participation and engagement. In the UK it's been proposed that citizen assemblies could potentially replace the House of Lords giving the electorate much greater control of the political system.


Have a look at this talk from TEDxBrayford Pool Youth 2017 by Kian Hearnshaw exploring whether we have “people power” in the UK

Media Bias:

Finally, there is also concern about the role of the media in shaping public opinion and influencing political decisions. The media, including social media, plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion, and its influence on politics cannot be denied. In an ideal world, the media would offer an unbiased, clear, and objective account of political events and developments. However, in reality, media bias is prevalent, particularly in the United Kingdom. Media bias in UK politics takes three main forms:

  1. Partisan reporting: Partisan reporting refers to the practice of presenting news in a manner that favours a particular political party or viewpoint. In the UK, partisan reporting is often observed in newspapers endorsing specific parties or politicians. For example, The Daily Telegraph is known for its conservative stance, while The Guardian leans more towards the left-wing Labour Party.

  2. Omission of facts: This type of bias involves the deliberate exclusion of essential information that may affect the reader's understanding of an issue. By omitting particular facts, media outlets can create a skewed perception of events, leading to an imbalance in public opinion.

  3. Selective coverage: Selective coverage occurs when media outlets decide which stories to cover and which to ignore based on their editorial agenda. This can result in the overemphasis of specific issues or the underrepresentation of others, causing an unbalanced view of the political landscape.

But why is there such obvious political bias in UK media? Firstly, commercial interests. Media outlets are businesses that rely on advertising revenue and sales to survive. As a result, they often cater to their audience's preferences and beliefs to keep them engaged and maintain their market share.


Some media outlets have direct links to political parties or are owned by individuals with strong political affiliations. This can result in biased coverage that supports the owner's political views. In addition to this, journalists and editors may have their own personal beliefs and political inclinations, which can intentionally or unintentionally influence their reporting.


Whilst media bias in UK politics is an unfortunate reality, it doesn't mean that balanced perspectives are unattainable. By being aware of the different types of media bias, understanding the reasons behind them, and using tools such as fact-checking services, you can navigate the complex media landscape and develop a more comprehensive understanding of political issues. As consumers of news, it's crucial to approach media with a critical mindset and actively seek out diverse viewpoints to ensure a well-rounded and informed perspective on the political events shaping the United Kingdom and beyond. By fostering a culture of media literacy and open dialogue, we can work towards reducing the impact of media bias and promoting a more balanced representation of UK politics.


David Puttnam’s TEDx talk asks whether the media has a moral obligation to keep citizens informed. Click below to watch his talk and further the debate.


In conclusion, there’s a long way to go to make UK political and the political system fairer and fit for purpose. What’s key in addressing this is that we all need to take more responsibility for our role within the system. We can fact-check and call out bias where we see it occurring, we can call for more transparency in our elected officials, but ultimately none of this matters if we don’t use our votes. Whilst a large proportion of our society doesn’t see the point in voting it is arguably the only way that we’ll create actual change.


Here's some great talks from TED to help further the conversation. Max Rashbrooke explores 3 ways we can upgrade democracy for the 21st century and Eric Liu dives into how we can revive our belief in democracy.





 

If you want to join the wider conversation around better politics and democracy then join us for our second TEDxBrayford Pool Salon of the year, People, at Lincoln Grandstand. Click on the image to book tickets.








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