Representative Democracy – Best or Better?

I recently read an article that expressed the views of four Cambridge University experts regarding the need for reform in the UK’s ‘mother of parliaments’. These experts were professors of Public Law, English Law, Public Policy and History. Their knowledge of these subjects give weight to the professors’ voices, but will they be heard? As the UK now has a Government that has made manifesto pledges about constitutional reform and has promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ to address their pledges, we can only hope that authoritative voices will be listened to. There is no sign of that yet.

Between them, the Cambridge professors called for a range of reforms: abolishing Standing Order Number 14; redesigned chambers, to create a better atmosphere for constructive debate; better work spaces for MPs; change the electoral system – go for proportional representation; shaking up the second chamber – possibly even abolish the House of Lords. All of them proposed reforms, rather than asking whether the UK’s democracy could be better even without reform. Could our elected representatives simply do a better job? Would politics work better if both the electorate and the elected had a shared understanding and expectation of representative democracy? Reforms are fine – better buildings are certainly needed – but will take time. It would be faster to make the unreformed work as it should first.

It seems that the greatest problem with representative democracy is identifying who is represented. Regrettably, those who are elected too often think that they serve the best interests of their political parties and not the interests of the nation or their constituents first. This may seem like a trite point, but it is vital. All MPs serve all of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them, and there is even a Code of Conduct that sets out the duties of MPs. That Code does not mention any duty to political party.

Duties mentioned in the Code echo the words of Parliamentary statesmen who have emphasised Members’ first duty to nation, second to constituents and that any duty to party organization or programme comes third. Party manifestoes and policy do not take precedence over primary duties.

Why is this so important in modern British politics? Fundamentally, because without application of and adherence to the Code by all MPs, party politics gets in the way of representative democracy and prevents Members acting in what they judge first to be the best interests of the UK or their constituents, in that order. This problem is exacerbated if the party of Government has a large majority and is made substantially worse by the practices of Whipping. There is no doubt that party Whips have an important role to play in encouraging MPs to vote and even informing them of party policy with regard to motions to be voted upon. Practices that allow Whips to offer inducements to MPs to toe the party line are entirely contrary to the principles of representative democracy and duties of Members. There is a Standard Note1 in the House of Commons Library that includes an overview of the functions and duties of the Whip’s Office. That Note contains the paragraph: “There is certainly an important element of carrot as well as stick in the way whips persuade Members, and the Chief Whip is able to offer positions in government or on popular select committees in return for loyalty in the division lobbies, recalling Ostrogorski’s reference to the Whip’s eighteenth century title – ‘Patronage Secretary’ or ‘Secretary for Political Jobs’.

How can it possibly be an accepted practice in Parliament that elected representatives may be offered inducements to act against what they themselves judge to be best for the UK or for their constituents? We may like to trust that our representatives are honourable and will always do their duties, but any practice that may tempt them to do otherwise should not be permitted. Such practices should be banned and all MPs allowed to vote freely, for what they judge best. This would actually encourage and promote good debate upon the issues of greatest importance to the nation and its people; when allied with Standing Order 14, some practices of the Whip’s Office mitigate strongly against well-informed decisions being made in the House of Commons.

In 2019, I tried to raise a UK Parliament petition to allow MPs to vote freely upon a motion. That petition was rejected by the House of Commons Petitions Committee, on the grounds that: “Decisions about whipping are the responsibility of the political parties, not the UK Government or Parliament.” It is quite shocking that a practice that may affect the outcome of ‘democratic’ votes in the House of Commons isn’t considered to be a matter for Government or Parliament.

It’s not just our elected representatives who need to be better understand and practice their duties. We, the electorate, must all understand that elected MPs represent all of their constituents, not just those who vote for them and that they are our representatives, not delegates. This should encourage more of us to engage in politics; too often “they don’t represent me” is heard from those who could be making their voices heard and be letting their MP know what is important to them. This is particularly true when some MPs might be inclined to think they must toe the party line and have heard nothing contrary in their constituency. We need to let them know what our opinions are but accept that they will exercise their own judgement of what is best. We can do that safe in the knowledge that we can judge their performance in future. This understanding between constituent and representative was summed up well by Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

So, whilst reform might well be necessary to create the best possible democracy, there is much that can be done now to make it better. We should all be asking our representatives to do it – now. Why wait for reform?

1: ‘The Whip’s Office”:

Representing and Serving ‘All The People’ – the Trump/Johnson way

It has been interesting to watch, read about and listen to the reactions in the United States of America and elsewhere, to the events on Capitol Hill earlier this month.  Of course, the Democrats will (rightly) point to the contribution that Trump’s words made to empower the protesters who thought they had a right to halt the progress of a democratic process.  What I think Trump did was a perfect demonstration of an increasingly worrying trend in ‘representative democracies’.  He gave his voters the impression that only their views mattered and that he (as President) thought it was right that they should fight for what they wanted, regardless of the views of others.  What Trump did was entirely consistent with his actions over the past four years and a signal to us all that politicians who act as he did are not concerned at all about what is best for the countries they serve. 

Reactions in America have included Biden promising to “represent all Americans” and Schwarzenegger sending a message that includes a hope for more representatives with “a servant’s heart”.  Some other senior Republicans have, at least, decried Trump’s words.  These reactions highlight an important feature of representative democracy – it is fine to only talk to the interests of your own voters when they are a majority, but when that ‘power’ is lost, to serve only those voters requires either popular revolt or absolute authority.  Fortunately, neither were available to Trump, despite his attempt to incite the former; I trust that his failure has sent a strong message that he and his politics are not as popular as he thinks.  I hope that Biden can repair the damage caused during the past four years by showing that it is possible to represent all Americans by doing what he thinks best for the whole country and making it tough for those who disagree to prove him wrong – certainly not to try to do so by anything other than peaceful means.  Reactions elsewhere have, generally, been ones of condemnation of Trump’s most recent attempts to retain power. 

I am most interested by subdued reactions in the UK, because the political leader in my native country (or Union of countries) seems to crave popularity above all other things.  Naturally, a leader who does that will always seek to please and to promote popular themes.  That will win votes, but what happens if those popular themes are really not in the best interests of the whole nation?   Will the leader set out different popular themes to promote or will they blame others when the effects of their previous promotions become apparent?  Meantime, what will they do to consolidate their own position and give themselves the best chance of retaining power?  Of course, any politician who wants to gain votes will have to have a feel for what is popular with voters.  At the same time, they will hold views of their own about what is in the best interest of the people they aim to represent.  Any politicians who crave popularity to such an extent that they will not say what they judge best for the nation for fear of becoming unpopular are not really representing all of ‘the people’ and the only interest they are serving is their own.  Politicians like this are taking us on a strange journey. 

In the United Kingdom, we have seen a remarkable transition over five or six years.  We had an assembly of elected representatives (the House of Commons) in which a large majority of seasoned representatives judged that the UK’s membership of the European Union was in the best interests of the nation.  We now have an assembly comprised of elected representatives, most of whom are the same people, that has judged that the UK’s exit from the EU was in the best interests of the nation.  This has come to pass because of a referendum in which a minority of the people they represent, voted to leave the EU.  (I know that a majority of voters in that ballot voted ‘Leave’, but that does not change the fact that 37.4% of the eligible electorate provided advice that was taken as “the will of the people”. )  Viewing this in the context of politics as a popularity contest, it is difficult not to conclude that our elected representatives no longer consider themselves as judges of what is best for the nation but as delegates, who must do what is necessary to keep themselves popular.  Reflecting upon the recent words of Biden and Schwarzenegger, most of the United Kingdom’s Members of Parliament  no longer represent all of the people and many serve their own interests first.  This does not seem to be representative democracy, which has evolved over centuries to avoid ‘all of the people’ being affected long-term by the popular choice of a majority of voters at a point in time.

In these COVID-times and now that the UK has left the EU, why does any of this matter?  For one thing, we have a Government that has tried its best to avoid doing unpopular things until the consequences of it not doing so would have been even more dire than they have.  This confirms politicians tendency always to seek popularity.  Most important though, are the current UK Government’s plans for constitutional reform which are written into their 2019 manifesto; a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ will “come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.  The member of the Cabinet with responsibility for this process is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who has so far focused efforts upon two areas for independent review; Administrative Law and the Human Rights Act.  Neither review has progressed far yet, but the choice of these two aspects of the Commission’s work is revealing because the 2019 manifesto makes clear a need to clarify the roles of Parliament, the Judiciary and Government in the UK’s democracy.  Less clear, but stated, is the desire to prevent Government being frustrated in its work by Parliament or the Judiciary.  Both of these points are directed at two pillars of the UK’s democracy, representation of ‘the people’ by the House of Commons, a vital part of Parliament, and the Rule of Law.  We have a Government that seems intent upon preventing its work being frustrated by these two pillars.  They will claim a mandate to act upon both because ‘the people’ voted for their manifesto.  This should worry us all as the Government is actually unelected but formed by the winner of an election, most often with a minority of the eligible electorate deciding the victor.  It is quite telling that the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto declares on-going support for that method of deciding a General Election, effectively excluding it from the scope of the proposed Commission’s inquiry.  

A key role of Parliament, beginning in the House of Commons, is to ensure that any Government can demonstrate that the policies it wishes to implement are in the best interests of its citizens.  Therefore, it is Parliament where representation of all of the people should be  assured.   UK citizens everywhere should have their interests represented in Parliament and until the Government prioritises its manifesto commitment to extend voting rights to all non-resident citizens, there will be many disenfranchised.  Any Government that fails to act to include as many of its citizens as possible in democracy or aims to restrict the role of elected representatives in deciding what is best for the nation, is acting against democracy.  It is possible that the work of the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will remind or inform Members of Parliament what their role in the UK’s democracy is – so far many of them seem to have forgotten or not know that they represent all of their constituents, not just those who voted for them, and that they have no democratic duty to their party.  

As we know from recent events in the USA, it is the Rule of Law and the role of Congress that has prevented a President from undermining representative democracy in that country.  We must all hope that the current UK Government don’t succeed in undermining the Rule of Law or role of Parliament in the UK before our next General Election.  If they were to do that with the partisan help of many of our elected MPs, serving themselves rather than their constituents, a final nail will have been hammered into the coffin of representative democracy in the United Kingdom.

In closing, I will return to the subjects of extending the franchise and popularity.  Page 48 of the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto contains the words : “We will make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”  It is notable that this subject is not one that has been targeted early in the work of the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (also mentioned on page 48), even though it would seem to be an easy win – extending the franchise must ‘increase’ democracy, giving more UK citizens a say in key decisions affecting their lives.  Why then is the Government not putting this manifesto commitment into parliamentary business as quickly as possible?  It is a subject that directly affects an estimated four and a half million British nationals abroad, all of whom are affected to some extent by policies of their Government and decisions of the UK Parliament.  It may have been a vote winner to include this commitment in the manifesto of 2019.  However, moving to implement it before the next election may not be in the interest of the Government – after all they may still not be popular amongst large numbers of new (or returning) voters and giving the impression of being popular seems to be more important than representation of more of the people.  Could anyone imagine Trump trying to restrict the eligibility of US citizens abroad to make absentee votes or Biden trying to exclude them from the people he has promised to represent? 

Representative Democracy or “The Will of the People”? Who decides?

There is an interesting section in the 2019 Conservative Party general election manifesto, it begins on page 47 with a heading and a couple of worthy paragraphs:

Section Heading from page 47 of the Conservatives 2019 Manifesto

Subsequent text goes on to explain the kind of things that will be reviewed or done to ‘evolve’ the UK’s constitution. It will be interesting to see in what order these things will happen to ensure that the evolution results in a creature better adapted for the political world. Before the constitution evolves, it would, perhaps, be good to consider whether it is poorly adapted or doomed to extinction due to predatory action.

Although I took little real interest in politics until quite recently, I did think that the UK was a representative (some say ‘Parliamentary’) democracy and that the electorate in each constituency voted for candidates to be their MP. I also thought that the winning MP then represented all of their constituents, whether those people could or did vote for them or not. When it comes to Parliament, I thought that all MPs in the House of Commons had a collective responsibility to always act in a way that they judged to be best for the whole nation and that all of Parliament (Commons and Lords) were supposed to ensure that the Government always acted in the best interests of the nation by scrutiny of all proposed Executive actions. In this model, it seems that some constituents choose who will win the competition to represent all of them and, then, that all of ‘the people’ are represented in the House of Commons, which can hold the Government to account. It is important to note that ‘all of the people’ have not elected the Government.

I’ve pondered hard to try to understand where and how referendums fit into the system of democracy in the UK. Some say that referendums are events of ‘direct democracy’, which our representatives decide are occasionally necessary to determine what voters amongst the people they represent, want the Government to do regarding a particular issue. The idea seems to be that referendums determine what the people represented by MPs want, so that the result of a referendum may be taken as “the will of the people”. This seems odd when only eligible voters can participate in them and, unless by exception, the result stands no matter what proportion of those eligible actually vote.

On the face of it, referendums appear to be good ways of finding out what voters want but I struggle to understand how the result of one can be taken as “the will of the people” – unless, of course, either a majority of the people vote for the result or the result indicates clearly what “the will of the people” is.

So, do our representatives decide whether the UK’s constitution evolves as the Conservatives outline in their manifesto or does the Government hold a referendum to allow “the will of the people” to give them a mandate? Or, will the current Government simply claim that they already have a mandate from ‘the people’ and use their large majority to, first, limit the powers of Parliament to challenge the executive intent and actions of Government and then, push on with constitutional ‘evolution’?

It is going to be fascinating to see whether the UK remains a representative democracy or the Government assumes that it has a mandate to implement “the will of the people” from a general election that was intended to elect representatives of all of the people. It will be interesting to see whether the people want the responsibilities of their representatives to be changed and whether they will consider there is any point voting for MPs who will only be able to represent their best interests if they want what the Government tells them they can have. When one of their manifesto pledges is to “make sure that every vote counts the same”, it is a contradiction that they plan changes which will ensure that not all representatives will be equal. At least one benefit would come from Parliament’s role being weakened, there should be no need for referendum’s in the future. Considering how much political disruption was caused by the last one that’s a good thing but, how will “the will of the people” be determined next time it is needed?

Jeremy Corbyn – A Politician Before His Time?

I am no Labour or Corbyn supporter. But, as a believer in representative democracy, I have been surprised and dismayed by the criticism (vitriol from some) that has been directed towards Labour, for its Brexit ‘policy’, and towards Corbyn, for his neutral stance, in the run up to the December 2019 General Election. There were some points that needed clarification in the policy and many Labour MPs (and pundits) made a bad job of that. Despite that, I have been most dismayed to hear views that Labour or Corbyn were somehow disrespecting democracy or not representing their ‘core’ supporters.

I’d better just check that I understood the Labour policy and Corbyn’s stance. I will be happy for anyone to point out if I misunderstood it. Here goes:
1. Take a few months to negotiate a deal that better protects UK jobs and workers’ rights. (On this, they assured that the EU had already agreed in principle to a ‘better’ deal that Starmer had been leading the negotiation of.)
2. Commit to and prepare the necessary legislation for an informed referendum in mid-2020. Options to be offered in that referendum proposed to be the ‘Better’ Deal versus Remain.
3. Take the ‘better’ deal to some form of special conference to let members vote upon its ‘credibility’.
4. Hold the referendum and implement its result (that requirement to be mandated in the referendum Act).
5. Corbyn committed that he and his Government would not campaign for either option to be offered in the referendum but would make sure that there were only two clear choices offered and that ‘the peoples’ choice’ would be implemented.

Now, I must be honest and write that I was never clear what would have happened if no ‘credible deal’ could be concluded or passed by the promised special conference. I would have better understood a commitment made, simply, to an informed referendum offering two clear choices, even if those were Remain and the Prevailing Deal; whether that had been a new deal or the one inherited from the last Government. This lack of clarity would have disinclined me from voting for Labour, unless they were a tactical choice for me, but I don’t understand why (supposedly) Labour supporters were not shouting for clarification rather than shouting ‘foul’.

That said, what’s wrong with a promise from a political party to deliver a deal that is suited to its ideologically, confirm that is acceptable to its membership, put it to ‘the people’ and then implement what ‘the people’ decide? Surely, it’s a lot better than promising people something that can’t be delivered, giving them a choice between two options; one of which is abstract; and then implementing whatever your party alone prefers.

So, it appears to me that Corbyn is just a politician ahead of his time. He’s tried to do something that suits the ideology of his party; presumably what the membership expects. He’s tried to be representative and promise to do what the majority of ‘the people’ want – after making clear to them what they are being asked to choose. In a time when most are calling for more representative democracy, it’s a real surprise that the electorate seem to favour leadership by someone who tells them what is good for them and wants to restrict the powers of the MPs they have elected to represent them. Do the people really want more representative democracy or to go back in time, to when political leaders told them what is good for them? Or, do they simply not want the responsibility of deciding more for themselves in clear referendums but will be happy to be affected by the results of fudged ones?