Seeking an Alternative

In Democracy

There is clearly something wrong with representative democracy as practised in the UK. Largely due to a system that looks in on itself and fails to see what is going on around it.

The system is not all bad. I very much like the system of Parliamentary Select Committees, where a cross party bench can ask questions of, and demand real answers from, pretty much anybody they like, be it a Prime Minister or a company CEO. This has a remarkable effect of clarifying issues. Unfortunately, no committee has managed to undo the neo-liberal ideology and it may be relevant that the members of the committees are also Members of Parliament. Nevertheless, Select Committees are good.

I also like the bicameral system. We are no longer looking for two houses that represent different views of the populace. We are more into a second house giving a second view to legislation that the first house is proposing. The idea as it stands is that members of the House of Lords do not have to fight elections and so they have more freedom to carefully consider whatever they are given. I am concerned about the transfer of party allegiance into the second house. This makes it less impartial. I'm also concerned about the limitations on the powers of the House of Lords to veto, or even discuss. If a government wants to get something through with minimal interference form the Lords they can try to dress it up as a financial bill and the Lords has very limited powers to do anything. I do like the idea, though.

As it happens, I also like the monarchy. There's a reason for this that we'll come to later.

When looking for the source of the problems the first past the post voting system is a potential candidate for the villain here. The winner takes all result means that the ruling party has no need to take any notice of the opposition and there is no requirement for discussion. Since the system doesn't require any reference back to the voters there is no need for discussion with them either. The executive still has to do things that most party MPs are happy with, and there are still the Parliamentary committees to attend to, after that we are left with the Lords, and potential law suits, to curb excess.

Perhaps we could use some kind of proportional voting system? There are many versions, but the end result would be a distribution of seats between parties, with no one party having an overall majority1. Within the UK the winning party is required to form a government. If there is no winning party then a coalition is required and the coalition forms a government. Any parties not in the coalition become the opposition. This is our first hurdle. Whether we have a coalition or a confidence and supply style, each requires horse trading over policy issues. The two issues that I see are that structuring around parties limits the possibilities of discussion, and that there's still no real encouragement to go out and see the effects of policy. We don't necessarily get away from the Westminster Village.

Parliamentary procedures don't help us here. Managing expenses, enforcing codes of conduct and strengthening Select Committees are simply re-arranging the deck chairs. The issue is one of power, or at least status. While this does not apply to all MPs there are too many to whom it does. We might say that the real problem is that we choose MPs from a group of people who want to be Members of Parliament. It might seem silly, but perhaps we could look at ways to involve people who don't want the job.

Interestingly, the structure of our Cabinet bears some looking at. We have a committee that has two, possibly three functions: management of the various executive departments; making new law; and ensuring that the majority party continues in power. This linkage breaks, or certainly weakens, the representative part of our democracy. We might guess that removing the law making part might well mean less enthusiasm for the job. This suggests that, rather than take potshots at different aspects of the system we should look at the whole structure and take it from there.

  1. As it happens the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011. This is unusual and represents a very high proportion of the populace in support of the SNP.