The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

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Regulating the use of COVID passports in the UK: the need for primary legislation

Talk of ‘COVID passports’ as a means of proving a person’s vaccination status has increased in recent weeks. Ronan Cormacain argues that rule of law concerns necessitate that COVID passports must be created and regulated by primary legislation, which must be given time for proper parliamentary scrutiny. They should not be brought about by secondary legislation, as has been the case with a significant amount of pandemic-related legislation.

The so-called COVID passport is a way of ‘proving’ a person’s COVID status. This blogpost makes three arguments. Firstly, that the use of COVID passports ought to be regulated, secondly that that regulation ought to be by way of legislation, and thirdly that that legislation needs to be an Act of Parliament.

There are many forms such a passport could take: digital or non-digital, domestic only or international, relating to the presence of COVID antibodies or vaccination status, etc. Furthermore, there are many important questions around the content of such a law: the justification of requiring a passport, scope, international recognition, protections, necessity and proportionality, time limits on regulation, etc. This post does not address any of these questions, focusing not on the detail of any law regulating them, instead simply arguing that there should be a law regulating the matter in the UK.

Autonomous moral actors in an unregulated market, or heteronomous rules imposed upon a regulated market

John Locke’s almost mythical conception of a pre-Commonwealth era was of autonomous individuals perfectly free to make their own moral choices. There were no externally imposed rules, and we were all individuals with complete power to determine our own actions. Or as Locke put it: ‘a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other [person]’.

At the time of writing, COVID passports, or more specifically, the right to treat a person in a particular way depending upon whether or not they have a COVID passport, occupies a near Lockean regulation-free space. There is no rule that a publican may refuse entry to a person without a passport, but nor is there a law that specifically prohibits him from doing so. There is no rule that a health worker must only be employed if they have a passport, but nor is there a specific protection for those who don’t have one. Aside from the regulation of travellers to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (who must be in possession of a negative COVID test result), this is a law-free zone.

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Who are the ‘unsung heroes’ of Westminster? Results from a survey of MPs staff

Portrait photo of Rebecca McKee

Last year’s outcry about extra funding to assist MPs whose staff were working remotely due to the pandemic demonstrated how little is understood about MPs’ offices and those who work in them. Rebecca McKee presents the first data from her project on MPs’ staff, summarising her findings in response to the question ‘who works for MPs? Much of the data presented here is from a survey of MPs’ staff and more information about the survey can be found on the project webpage.

We know more than ever about our MPs – who they are, what motivates them, and what they say and do in the course of their work. They work hard, and their workload is growing. But this work is supported by just over 3,000 staff, working in offices across the UK, and we know very little about these ‘unsung heroes’, as former Commons Speaker John Bercow called them. They undertake a wide variety of roles: as gatekeepers, controlling access by constituents and interest groups; they are resources, providing research and policy advice; they are channels, linking the constituency to Westminster; and they are providers of essential administrative support. They sit at what has been termed the ‘representational nexus’, as they represent the constituents to the MP and the MP to their constituents.

These individuals have an unusual employment status; they are not public servants in the way that a civil servant is. MPs are responsible for employing their own staff directly and they are able to set the direction of work and the roles of the staff needed to support them, essentially running 650 small businesses. They do so within a framework covering salaries and job descriptions, overseen by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). There is no formal hiring process and staff may lack some of the usual employment protections and support systems. Yet these roles can also provide the incumbents with significant benefits. Staff may be able to trade on the valuable experience they have gained and the networks they have become privy to. Some, but not all jobs, can be a stepping stone to a career as a parliamentarian, a political journalist, in a public affairs agency, or other role where knowledge of ‘the inside’ and a demonstrable ability to engage with it counts for a lot.

Yet not everyone can take advantage of these opportunities. The experience of a caseworker in a constituency office will differ from that of a parliamentary researcher in the Westminster office, simply on account of the different work they do, their exposure to Westminster politics and the people they interact with as part of their job.

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The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned from Easter transformed by Covid. Since then, accountability for far-reaching government policy and spending has often been limited, many MPs have been excluded from key virtual proceedings, and whips now hold over 500 proxy votes. Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson argue that the combined effect in terms of parliament’s marginalisation has been shocking, and that there are risks of government becoming too comfortable with decision-making which evades proper parliamentary scrutiny. One year on, more robust parliamentary accountability must urgently be restored.

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned to business transformed by Covid. Since March 2020, the public has lived under some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime laws, and to support the economy public money has been spent on a vast scale. Yet parliamentary accountability for, and control over, these decisions has diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. One year on, with lockdown easing, the restoration of parliamentary control and functioning is now an urgent priority.

This post highlights five ways in which the government’s approach to the House of Commons during Covid has marginalised MPs. In a parliamentary democracy, government accountability to parliament is a core constitutional principle. But in a national emergency, when time for normal process is short, the gravity of the situation can require that parliamentary scrutiny be temporarily sacrificed in exchange for broader accountability. Yet the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain. Too frequently, announcements have been made at press conferences, or briefed privately to the media, rather than presented for democratic scrutiny and questioning by MPs. Ministers have sought extraordinary powers while consistently excluding both the House of Commons as a whole, and certain MPs, from participating in proper oversight.

In the early days of the pandemic necessity arguably justified this approach. But a year on, a real risk exists of damaging precedents being set. This is magnified by the fact that some recent developments have accelerated negative trends predating the pandemic. Unless MPs collectively take a stand against parliament’s continued marginalisation by ministers, what was once extraordinary risks becoming the norm.

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