Do we need a new charter for political reform?
Nearly 30 years ago, Unlock Democracy’s predecessor organisation, Charter 88, made a sober assessment of the state of democracy in the UK:
“We have been brought up in Britain to believe that we are free: that our Parliament is the mother of democracy; that our liberty is the envy of the world… Today such beliefs are increasingly implausible. The gap between reality and the received ideas of Britain’s “unwritten constitution” has widened to a degree that many find hard to endure.”
The democratic deficit which animated the authors of the original Charter 88 is just as visible today – from the electoral system that last year delivered the most disproportionate result in history, to the hidden influence of party donors who get privileged access to policymakers. Yet political reform has been treated by successive governments as a “third term issue”, permanently at the bottom of the agenda. Jeremy Corbyn has spoken of the need for a new politics. Embracing democratic reform is the key to that agenda.
Political parties, and Labour in particular, should see more self-interested reasons to address the democratic deficit in the UK. The plight of political parties as institutions is rooted in the state of our democracy. Parties have been hollowed out, with the Corbyn surge the only blip in the long-term decline in membership. As a party which grew out of the trade union movement and which prides itself on being rooted in communities across the country, the decline in membership has troubled its leaders more than other parties. The problem Labour has experienced in reconnecting with voters is not a shortage of will. Labour’s plan for a constitutional convention involving ordinary voters is a promising development. The rules of our political system themselves are a barrier to Labour truly becoming a “party of democracy” – an open, more responsive party that listens to voters.
Our voting system hands the power to decide elections to a fraction of the electorate, and the lack of restrictions on donations mean that parties must fall back on big donors to compete in the electoral spending race. If Labour wants to reconnect with voters, it must tackle barriers like these head on. Changing the rules of our democracy would mean changing the face of the Labour party as well.
The Labour party that won three general elections under Blair was a well-oiled electoral machine, built to zero in on swing voters. The electoral system gave the party the incentive to neglect vast swathes of its core voters to focus on the small number of constituencies which decide a general election. The heart of Labour’s strategy was to listen ever more intently to an ever smaller section of the electorate. This was an understandable response to the nature of electoral competition, but left the party increasingly isolated from many of its voters. In 2015, the party found itself unable to continue to square this electoral circle, losing ground to the SNP in Scotland, and to Ukip in its northern heartlands.
Changing the voting system would radically change the field of party competition. Under a fairer, more proportional voting system, parties would be forced to compete for votes across the country, rather than the handful of marginal seats. More positively it will also mean that pockets of Labour support in traditionally Conservative areas would also be recognised. More representation across Labour’s weaker regions, not just in isolated ‘red islands’ like Southampton Test or Bristol East, would help both Labour and the south to understand and appreciate each other. There would be no guarantees of thriving in the new electoral environment, but by abandoning the crutch of the electoral system Labour would have to find a new relationship with its voters.
Labour faces a similar challenge on party funding. The near miss with the Trade Union Bill, which would have cut Labour’s union funding by up to £8m a year, should be a wake-up call. This time, a cross-party coalition forced the government to back down on its one-sided plans. If politicians are serious about curbing the influence of big donors, they cannot ignore the demand for reform forever. A recent poll showed that 77 per cent of the public think big donors have too much influence on policy.
Without restrictions on big donations, the size of a party’s war chest is determined by the depth of their supporters’ pockets, rather than the breadth of their support in society. Denying political parties the option of relying on the usual wealthy suspects to fund their campaigns would force them to look outward to find new sources of funding. Labour has already taken steps to shift power from trade union leaders to individual union members with reforms to affiliation. But unless Labour embraces changes to the way all parties are funded, party funding reform will be something that happens to the party, not with the party.
Labour has a choice. The party can continue to tolerate the whims of the electoral system and the unwritten prerogatives of government in the hope of seizing the reins of power. It can continue to rely on big donations from trade unions for the bulk of its funding. Or Labour can take the first step towards transforming itself by committing to make the rules of our democracy fairer.