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Britain’s democratic institutions are under huge strain and the problem is getting worse amid repeated “assaults” on the integrity of elections, citizens’ political rights, and lying in politics, according to a new report.
Research launched today by political reform groups Unlock Democracy and Compass sounds the alarm about a long-term decline of UK democracy, exposing a “systematic decoupling of people and power”.
It comes as separate new research from the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank finds that almost three in five voters back large-scale reform of Britain’s political system, with just one in 17 people (6%) opposing change. Only one in three people trust Parliament to act in the best interest of people in the UK as things stand.
Rising Demand for Change
People living in the north of England and in South Wales are most likely to support change. Focus groups held by the IPPR found that issues such as the voting system to elect MPs, the unelected House of Lords, and a lack of real devolution to local areas emerged at the top of citizens’ democratic concerns.
Damningly, when asked to suggest one word to summarise their perceptions of the state of democracy in the UK, participants used words such as “chaos”, “dysfunctional”, “corrupt” and “broken”.
The report argues that politicians need to overcome the “temptation to downplay democratic reform” when considering a programme for government. The IPPR authors argue that reforming Britain’s political system is central to fixing Britain’s “centralised” economy and tackling wider issues that matter to voters.
Labour Leader Keir Starmer has recently been accused of shying away from an overhaul of the UK political system after party insiders hinted that they could appoint around 100 peers to the unelected House of Lords, admitted that Starmer will not introduce proportional representation for UK elections, and refused to commit to repealing new anti-protest laws.
In some of the “most egregious” threats to democratic integrity in recent years – such as the ‘Partygate’ scandal over No. 10 rule-breaking during Coronavirus restrictions or the 2021 lobbying scandal surrounding former Conservative MP Owen Paterson – existing mechanisms have ultimately been able to enforce a degree of accountability.
But far more worrying for the Compass/Unlock Democracy report authors is that ministers have continued to push through changes to Britain’s political system that pose “considerable risks” for the UK’s democratic future.
Deluge of Damaging Changes
In 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “it has never been more vital to strengthen democracy at home and stand up for our principles abroad”. But he followed that up with a suite of changes branded “dangerous” to democracy by leading academics and political reform groups.
Johnson’s Government introduced mandatory voter ID – whereby all voters must now bring a form of photo identification or not be allowed to vote. With around two million people in Britain lacking the “right” photo ID, it has made it “much more difficult” for many people to vote, the authors say.
The Electoral Commission found last week that at least 14,000 people were denied a vote as a result of the change in May’s local elections in England.
At the same time, ministers face accusations that they have compromised a central principle of elections: that the watchdog responsible for overseeing elections, the Electoral Commission, should be independent of government.
Last year, the Government passed the Elections Act which allows ministers to set the strategy of the Electoral Commission and pack the body overseeing it with government representatives.
Meanwhile, clampdowns on the right to protest and strike, and conscious attempts to weaken the power of independent regulators and the judiciary, compound existing failings within UK democracy, the report says.
Again, Rishi Sunak has ramped up these changes, passing the Public Order Act shortly before the King’s coronation this May – an event which saw dozens of peaceful protestors arrested, including from anti-monarchy group Republic. The arrests triggered outrage from opposition parties, though Labour was largely mute.
In particular, the report notes that the tendency of the UK’s ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system to give outright power to a single party on a minority of the vote allows governments to “ride roughshod” over institutions and norms of democracy.
Campaigners have long called for a switch to a form of proportional representation, whereby seats in Parliament more closely reflect how the public actually votes.
The report concludes that, in the absence of a codified constitution, citizens’ freedoms cannot be guaranteed – with the Government able to slash rights to vote and protest with little oversight.
Former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “People look at our politics and they are not impressed. With each new sleaze scandal, faith in politics falls. People rightly feel that there’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us. Amid Government assaults on our freedoms, and with the future increasingly uncertain, we need a written constitution to hardwire greater protection into UK democracy.”
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“Citizens at all levels of government need to be actively empowered, with genuine devolution to local communities, and a better electoral system in which everyone’s vote counts,” he added. “We need to get serious about guaranteeing our political and civil freedoms before it’s too late.”
For Neal Lawson, director of Compass, “our faith in politics is at an all-time low – but the system won’t heal itself”.
He believes “we need to take action to modernise and deepen our democracy to avert this worrying democratic backsliding” and that the report “should serve as a serious wake-up call. It shows that across the board, our democracy is increasingly fragile”.
Several major international reports have recently pointed to signs of “democratic backsliding” across the globe.
The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project concluded in its latest report that 35 years of democratic advances “have been wiped out”, with the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 returning to levels last seen in 1986.
In its Global State of Democracy Report 2022, International IDEA reported that half of the world’s democracies were “in retreat” – and the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism had doubled in the past six years.
In addition, research from the Electoral Integrity Project suggests that many established democracies have seen a decline in the quality of their elections.
Today’s report was commissioned as part of ‘Powering Up’, a joint Unlock Democracy and Compass project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.
Unlock Democracy is a not-for-profit organisation which campaigns for a” vibrant, inclusive democracy that puts power in the hands of the people”. It is calling for a new, written constitution. Cross-party membership group Compass is also calling for a “new democratic settlement” that emphasises collaboration, participation and alliance-building.
A spokesperson for Make Votes Matter said: “With Labour looking increasingly likely to form the next government, this task [of reform] may fall to them. Complacency is not an option.”
An interactive map published on IPPR’s website alongside its new report reveals the extent of support by constituency across England, Scotland and Wales.
The full Compass/Unlock Democracy report, ‘The UK’s Democracy Under Strain: Democratic Backsliding 2019-23’, can be read here.
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