We live in ‘broken Britain’, but not as the Sun and David Cameron’s pre-2010 phrase intended, of social decay and the mythical dysfunction of the poor and unfortunate. We have a broken and unequal economy, managed by broken politicians, in a broken electoral system, in broken political and economic Unions, at both a UK and European level. It’s time for a constitutional convention and root and brand reform.
In our recent Guide to Sustainable Democracy our readers voted for the reforms that would create a more sustainable democracy. The top ten most popular reforms were:
1. (Proper) MP recall for constituencies (93% support)
2. ‘None of the above’ option on ballot papers (83%)
3. Greater citizenship/political education in schools (82%)
4. Proportional representation (80%)
5. Disestablishment of the Church of England (76%)
6. Greater devolution to countries and regions (76%)
7. Abolition of party whips and all votes to be ‘free’ or unwhipped in Parliament (73%)
8. Welsh and Northern Ireland assembly to receive same devolved powers as the Scottish Parliament (68%)
9. Equalising the electorate size of Westminster constituencies (63%)
10. Compulsory voting (62%)
We would go three steps further to create a modern, representative, dynamic and resilient democracy for the 21st century. Here we imagine what we could do with our own democracy if it was up to us. Which it isn’t…. more’s the pity. We’d love to hear your ideas so we can start crowd sourcing the next Guide to Sustainable Democracy.
Our three ‘mad’, yet modest reforms
Most ‘new’ democracies form the United States (1788) onwards, choose to separate the church from state (reform #5 above), the executive from the legislature, and the judiciary from all others. This ‘separation of power’ means those that run the government on a day-to-day basis, a single-party executive, can be independently held account by the representatives of the people, a multi-party legislature. The judiciary sits totally apart, allowing citizen’s rights to be protected and laws to be struck down or upheld if they are unconstitutional.
Our system is a mixed system, evolved over centuries, where the head of the party that can command a majority in the Commons, historically the largest party, becomes the head of government (our Prime Minister), but he also sits in Parliament, as do his or her ministers – often subject matter amateurs and short-serving in their appointed portfolio – the average tenure of a minister between 2005 and 2009 was 1.3 years. Our judiciary is spread across the executive and the House or Lords.
Perhaps it’s time we entertained the idea of a directly-elected Prime Minister (using the alternative voting system), who could command majority public support and legitimacy across the whole nation. His appointed cabinet could then be formed of real subject matter experts in their appointed portfolios, and held to account by…
A proportional representation-elected House of Commons (using single transferable vote), on a six-year cycle, similar to the US Senate, which would legislate and approve appointments to the executive and judiciary. Elections would be held every two or three years, with a third or half of the Commons up for election – to create longer-term thinking MPs, while avoiding complacency and arrogance between elections, similar to the US Senate.
Members of Parliament are whiter, older, more male, more privately-educated and more university-educated than the people they represent. Rather than try to control who stands for parliament, one way to address this is to look at the ‘other place’ (Parliament’s archaic phrase for the opposite House, Commons or Lords) .
Our third and final constitutional reform suggestion would be to abolish the House of Lords, and replace it with a people’s jury or Citizen’s Senate, which would only meet annually. Citizen Senators would be selected at random for one term only, in the same way a jury is. Their selection would be stratified to be as representative as possible of the whole country – by gender, age, wealth, race and region. The current House of Lords is one of the most unrepresentative and largest parliamentary chambers in the world, with 780 members, second only to the Chinese National Party Congress (2,987 members). 200 or 300 members would probably suffice to be representative.
A new Upper House’s sole role would be to vote for or against elements of the executive’s legislative programme at the start of each Parliamentary term. Just as a jury in court hears the evidence for and against a case, so the Citizen’s Senate would hear the case for (executive witnesses) and against (opposition witnesses) each piece of proposed legislation. They would then deliberate and debate, and vote forward the legislation they supported to the Commons for line-by-line consideration and amendment, or vote it down.
In a digital age, direct democracy is feasible and has some attractive qualities, but it can easily lead to only the loudest/best-funded voices being heard and is open to corruption or hacking. Complex issues being simplified to binary decisions and there is a very real danger of mob rule. A jury-based, time-limited, once-only, annually-meeting Upper House would allow enough deliberation of complex legislation, uncorrupted by vested interests – with the will of the people represented without challenging the primacy of the Commons.
Final thought. If we could wind the clock back to a pre-devolution UK, to preserve a better Union, we would have proposed that there should only be one legislature for the UK – no other parliaments or assemblies. This would contain four grand committees, made up of MPs for the four constituent nations, which could decamp to the national capitals for a period each year.
These grand committees would vote on devolved issues affecting their constituents: health, education, welfare, transport, crime, etc. All MPs would be equal, and all would vote on national issues such as the environment, the economy, immigration and foreign policy/defence issues. It could also have smaller committees to be the bodies for the major conurbations and regions: London, Manchester, Glasgow, the borders, etc. Fewer politicians, devolved decisions – what’s not to like. And the UK would stand a chance of staying together.
Radical, naïve, silly, all or none of the above? Do you have reform ideas of your own? Let us know at email@example.com.
Photo: shining.darkness via Flickr