The UK’s democracy is often lauded as one of the greatest systems of government in the world, but in reality, there are many large problems that undermine this statement. Here are three serious problems with Britain’s political system that need fixed within the next few years.
1. The House of Lords
So far, the House of Lords has only ever been tinkered with, but the time is ripe for radical reforms. Tony Blair’s New Labour made some minor changes, and at the 2010 election all three major parties went into the election promising to support a partly-elected upper-chamber. Back then there was a consensus that change was needed, something that has been reiterated in recent weeks by proposals from the Lords Committee to give peers term limits of fifteen years. The problem is that such a change is just another tinker around the edge of the issue. The House of Lords needs radical change to pump blood back into the blood of our democracy.
The chamber lacks democratic legitimacy, it is overgrown and it is the product of a by-gone era with no place in a modern democracy.
But what can be done? There are plenty of solutions. It could be abolished, allowing the UK to become a unicameral democracy, it could be fully or partly elected, or it could become a Senate of Nations and Regions, giving devolved institutions a real say in UK-wide democracy in a similar manner to Germany’s Bundesrat. For the case of the latter, devolution would need to be reformed (see below).
2. Westminster's anachronistic voting system
First-past-the-post, the voting system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons is an utterly farcical and archaic “democratic tool”. It is a relic rooted in a time of rotten boroughs and limited franchise, and as such should have no place in modern Britain. FPTP results in parliaments that do not reflect votes, it allows MPs to monopolise a constituency even if they win 25% of the vote (or less) so long as they come first, it gives constituents just one choice of MP, and it even fails to deliver when it comes to one of its so-called merits: stable majority governments. 2005 was the last time it delivered a strong and stable government, and even then that was on a mind-mindbogglingly low 35% of the vote.
This is a problem that can easily be rectified and bring us into line with most modern democracies, which use forms of proportional representation. The Additional Member System, used for elections to Scotland's parliament, or the Single Transferable Vote, used in Ireland and Malta, would be much better alternatives. The latter would strengthen the political voice of the voters, retain constituency links and produce a more proportional parliament. The time for change is now.
3. Asymmetrical devolution
Devolution has been a great success story of modern Britain. It has allowed power to be decentralised and brought closer to the people - plus it takes into account sub-state difference across the United Kingdom. There’s just one problem – the lop-sided nature of this great political act. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London all have significant levels of devolution, but all vary in degree, and the advent of metro mayors earlier this year has created pockets of devolved areas up and down England. Devolution on demand is a nice idea in theory, but it’s very messy and creates issues of ambiguity about where power lies. One obvious solution that could help solve this – and would give England a real democratic voice within the union – is to turn Britain into a federal state with a written constitution outlining where power lies.
The big problem with this is what to do with England? Should there be an English parliament that dwarfs all other devolved institutions, or should regionalisation be brought up again? An English parliament would keep the integrity of England, but regionalisation would bring powers closer to the people.
The answer? A constitutional convention followed by a series of referenda if it has to. It would be a complex process, but this is an issue where clarity is needed, and one that could ultimately strengthen British democracy.