On 14 May, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to launch ‘Rethinking Democracy’, which was published by Political Quarterly earlier this year. The collection contains essays from leading academics, in which they explore the problems of representative democracy and suggest ways it might now be extended and deepened. In this blog, Tony Wright, Joni Lovenduski, Andrew Gamble and Albert Weale summarise their contributions to the event.
Earlier this year, I gave evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee (alongside Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit) on the topic of the effectiveness and influence of select committees. At that session, I was asked about the reforms instituted as a result of the recommendations in the 2009 report of the Reform of the House Committee, on which I served as chair. That committee came about because the expenses scandal had spurred me into writing to the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in a bid to encourage him to reform parliament in a way that might increase public regard for it, at a time when it was perhaps lower than it had ever been. The reforms made as a result of what is now called the Wright Committee have, I think, proved relatively successful. However, in that same letter I also proposed setting up what I called ‘a democracy commission’ to think through what kind of democracy we now wanted. Part of the problem I wanted that committee to deal with was the fact that people were increasingly disengaged from politics.
Ten years later, it is extraordinary what has happened: we have had democracy by the bucketload, so it’s claimed, and people’s engagement with politics has most definitely increased. But it wasn’t supposed to be quite like this. People like me had spent years looking for ways to replace or improve upon representative democracy, but now events have caused us to come to its defence. This is because this established democratic model is under assault across – and indeed beyond – the western world, and from all directions.
In this country, the 2016 referendum was the spur for this. And the result of that referendum was traumatic not just because we lost the vote, but because we lost the democratic argument. By this, I mean that we lost the argument when it comes to the idea of democracy itself. The Leave campaigns were the ones making the argument for democracy; they made the case for democratic self-government and sovereignty. And that case went unanswered, because instead of making a democratic argument, those campaigning for Remain focused on economics and how we would be ‘better off in’. There was a different argument that could have been made by Remainers, albeit a more complicated one. But it wasn’t made, and because of this, the proponents of a certain view of democracy prevailed.
Now we find ourselves in a state of democratic despair. To fix this, we have to give people a feeling that democracy can deliver for them after a long period of it failing to do so. Democracy is not just a matter of institutions, it is a way of doing politics – a culture and a spirit. The culture and spirit now is bad – it’s nasty – and a return to civility is required. If we need something to rally around, perhaps we can rally around that.
We should expect democratic systems to meet some relatively modest claims: they should be able to provide for the equal treatment of men and women as individuals; they should guarantee the equal presence of men and women in public life; and they should reflect and respond to the policy concerns and interests of both women and men. Even though women are closer to equality in the established democracies than they are in other political systems, democracies have not achieved these minimum conditions of equality.
On equal treatment, democracies have not done anything like enough to ensure this concept becomes a reality. The sexual abuse and harassment of women, for example, is widespread but continues to be accepted. The UK is late to the table on this; even in the House of Commons, it is only very recently that steps have been taken to deal with sexual harassment, and very limited they are too.
Similarly, women are not equally represented in public life in any democratic country. Of the top five countries in terms of female legislative representation, only one is a well-functioning representative democracy. The key mechanism is exclusion: seen in underrepresentation, male norms in elected assemblies, vertical and horizontal sexual segregation, and a political framing that underpins the perceptions of our representatives in such a way that the ideal politician is thought of as male.
In terms of the policy process, women are still mainly treated as outsiders and a political minority, despite actually being demographically in the majority. The policy agenda and its discourses treat women in terms of ascribed political roles whilst also remaining silent for decades on issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, rape and equality at work.
Talking about the book itself and how gender might figure in some of the analyses it contains, four things stood out for me. The first is the insulation of institutions. Representative democracies continue and proceed because of institutions that slow change, whilst insulating and protecting elites. These processes are gendered, and the excruciatingly slow progress of change – which is always resisted – is hardwired into our democratic institutions.
The second theme that I found was the problem of voluntary political parties. They are the almost universal institutions that organise politics, but are patently incapable of representing women as they are currently constructed. At root, the cause is probably the voluntary nature of political parties, which requires an investment of time. As women are working more hours than ever before, whilst still carrying out the bulk of domestic and caring labour, this creates a huge barrier to involvement in politics. Time is not only money, time is power.
And it is power – specifically power relations – which is the third theme I want to highlight. Representative democratic institutions have been uninterested in adapting to changes and controlling and managing increasing levels of inequality, which is known – and has been shown – to disproportionately affect women.
Fourth, power does not map onto constitutional arrangements, not least because our institutions no longer reflect and accommodate contemporary social divisions. Social and political identities no longer reflect each other; the class, religious, regional and gender settlements that form the basis of current political practices have overtaken other divisions, including different identities and ideologies. Even as democracies are excluding women, they are being undermined by social developments and new forms of political expression that push women’s priorities down the agenda.
As for how we got here, the short answer is through institutional sexism. Our current arrangements were designed on the basis of an unacknowledged sexual contract that excluded women by failing to acknowledge how private life makes public life possible, whilst also failing to make arrangements for the participation of all citizens.
What can we do about this? We need fundamental change that almost seems to be beyond the reach of political action. We must continue to promote the inclusion of women, and to understand that institutional reform is essential. It is not enough to offer equal treatment but exclude women from deciding what that means. Not only can women not play the game if they are not in it, institutional sexism means that the rules of the game prevent women from playing effectively, even when they do get involved.
Clearly, democracy is in trouble at the present time, but we should remember that this is not something particularly new, and that in the hundred years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 we have seen numerous variations in its fortunes, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Since 1945, there have been two notable high points. The first was in the 1950s, when stable democracies were established in western Europe after a half-century of war. The second was in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to an expanded number of democracies across the globe. This latest period of advance went into reverse after 2008; according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, only 20 full democracies are left, with France and the United States having fallen off that list in the not too distant past.
Looking at UK representative democracy in that broader context, it is worth remembering that when universal suffrage was introduced, it was grafted onto a constitutional and economic order that had some liberal aspects, but also retained several facets which were not just illiberal, but pre-modern. Although there have been some advances in creating a full liberal democracy since 1918, in many areas progress has been slow. For example, we have yet to see a gender balanced or female-majority cabinet or parliament in the UK. In addition, since the creation of the Welfare State, the UK has in recent years failed to match the kind of advances seen in Scandinavian welfare systems throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
We have to understand democracy as a process rather than an event and recognise how fragile it is, and how it depends on political will and the widespread belief of its citizens in its values to endure. In the UK, a feeling of resentment rooted in geographical, political and cultural divides is reconfiguring our politics. Even the notion of ‘taking back control’ via a sovereign parliament only endured until that very same parliament acted in a way that has been painted by some as denying popular sovereignty. The question then becomes do the people actually want representatives any more, or do they instead wish for more direct forms of political participation and political rule? We know from historical examples that this tends to empower new elites and risks a slide into illiberalism and authoritarianism.
As for what we can do, we have to find a way to empower local communities after a long period in which they have been made to feel disrespected and remote from the centres of power. We have to find ways of reengaging citizens at that local level; if we can’t do that, then it will be very difficult to scale it up. There may have been an explosion in formal accountability, but citizens in fact see governments as accountable for less and less. We must also examine the role of new digital media and the complex set of challenges it represents. The real challenge there is to find ways to regulate it in a way that delivers its positive aspects, whilst excluding the more troubling ones. If we are to have any chance of meeting the challenges that lie ahead, such as Brexit and climate change, we will need very robust forms of democratic self-government
I start from the premise that democracy is a system of majority rule. But that raises the question of what majority rule actually means. In the last decade, we have had three elections that have highlighted how the votes cast can translate into seats in the House of Commons in three different ways. In 2010, you had a hung parliament in which no one party had a majority share of the popular vote or the necessary number of parliamentary seats. This resulted in a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition whose parties had received approximately 59% of the votes and had around 57% of the seats. In 2015, the system reverted to type: the Conservative Party had the largest number of MPs, and was able to form a majority government alone, despite not receiving a majority of the votes cast. Finally, in 2017 no one party had a majority share of the Commons or the popular vote, but unlike in 2010, a minority government ended up being formed by a single party, hoping it could pass legislation using ad hoc majorities.
In the Westminster system prior to 2010, it was typical for national vote share to be magnified into a winning majority in the Commons. But this can only really work in a two party system where the debate is essentially about taxation and spending, and that world has gone. If we’ve learned nothing else from Brexit, one thing we do now understand is that parties can be united on the vast majority of their programmes, but very divided on particular issues. Parties are like people in that regard; you will have many things in common with a spouse or close friend, but there will always be issues where you are far apart.
How can we fashion an idea of true majority rule? Ideally, a government would need to be able to command a double majority; a majority both in the Commons and amongst the electorate. One idea that I quite like is the idea of a minority government that seeks to form majorities on particular measures, as often happens in Nordic countries. But I believe the best way of finding that double majority is through reform of the House of Lords. Electoral reform of the House of Commons seems a lost cause, but it is possible to imagine an elected House of Lords, chosen on a highly proportional system. This new House of Lords would not be able to deny confidence and supply to a government, but could put a majoritarian brake on individual laws being proposed by the Commons. This would create an incentive to compromise with minority groups and I hope would create a culture of policy deliberation and compromise.
The contributions above reflect a summary of the views of the authors as expressed at the Rethinking Democracy event on 14 May, which was hosted by the Constitution Unit in conjunction with Political Quarterly.
Rethinking Democracy was published in January. For an expanded version of Albert Weale’s thoughts on majorities and democracy, see his blog for the Unit here.
About the authors
Tony Wright is Professor of Government and Public Policy at University College London, a former Labour MP and former editor of Political Quarterly. He is the co-editor of Rethinking Democracy and is currently preparing a new edition of British Politics: A Very Short Introduction.
Joni Lovenduski is Anniversary Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is Chair of the Editorial Board of Political Quarterly and a member of the editorial boards of British Politics, The British Journal of Political Science and French Politics.
Andrew Gamble is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge and a co-editor of Rethinking Democracy. His most recent books are Can the Welfare State Survive? (2016) and Politics: Why it Matters (2019).
Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL. His book The Will of the People: A Modern Myth was published by Polity Press in 2018.