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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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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‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

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The Constitution Unit blog in 2020: the year in review

As was the case last year, 2020 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them (more so than anyone could have predicted in January). As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the blog year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. As challenging as 2019 was, however, 2020 has proved no less of a test for the constitution, its institutions and actors. It was always likely that the Brexit talks would not prove easy, and that the government’s Commons majority would not mean the Johnson government would automatically be able to bend parliament to its will. The pandemic has, of course, magnified the complexity of the government’s pre-existing challenges and raised a whole new number of policy problems, creating constitutional flashpoints aplenty. 

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my third year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

The 2019 election campaign shows that abuse, harassment and intimidation of candidates is getting worse, especially for women, by Sofia Collignon.

It’s difficult to call this one of my ‘favourite’ blogs, but it’s definitely one of the most important that we produced this year. Women candidates continue to disproportionately experience intimidation and harassment during general election campaigns, and Sofia Collignon eloquently describes the specific problems they face. I have advised victims of harassment, discrimination and gender-based violence for most of my adult life, so this is a topic very close to my heart: sadly we still have a very long way to go.

The role of monarchy in modern democracy, by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris.

I studied history as an undergraduate and I always tended to focus on periods when the monarchy itself was in crisis and being challenged by other institutions. I therefore always enjoy editing Robert and Bob’s blogs on the subject. At the end of a busy year for the monarchy, which has had to adapt to both ‘Megxit’ and the pandemic, this blog stands out, summarising as it does the main conclusions of their new book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. The book is fascinating, and I would also recommend viewing the launch event (chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby) on our YouTube page, where you can find video recordings of all our 2020 events. 

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The 2020 US presidential election: nine lessons

As reported in the latest issue of Monitor, the US presidential election raised even more constitutional issues and questions about the US system of elections than many anticipated. Colin Provost and Nadia Hilliard of the UCL Centre for US Politics discuss how the election was administered, and the roles of the judiciary, Electoral College and social media in the process.

The US presidential election of 2020 has been perceived by many observers as one of the most important elections in American history. A highly polarised electorate turned out in record numbers in the middle of a pandemic and for the first time, the incumbent president refused to concede after a clear result, while pushing a steady, yet unsubstantiated series of claims about voter fraud and voting irregularities. Given the highly unusual set of circumstances surrounding this election, it is worth considering how well US institutions performed with respect to the conduct of a free and fair election, and what lessons should be learned for future electoral cycles.

1. States can run elections smoothly.

Although federal laws that are harmonised across the states might seem to make more sense for national elections, the US Constitution allows each state to set its own election laws, as long as they are in compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other relevant, federal legislation. Keeping that in mind, it is important not to understate the fact that, on average, the states performed well in terms of administration of this election. Despite the pandemic, millions of people were able to vote and perhaps more importantly, a large subset of those people were able to vote by mail, so that they would not have to put their health in jeopardy by waiting in long – and often cramped – queues. Ultimately, those votes were all counted, even if a victor could not be declared until 7 November —five days after election day.

2. US electoral institutions are resilient.

The institutions of election administration proved to be resilient in the face of baseless allegations of voter fraud and voting irregularities: those allegations were many, and continue to be made. In a normal election year, post-election lawsuits are practically non-existent, but in 2020, the Trump campaign filed dozens of lawsuits across several states, nearly all of which have been found to be lacking in merit, while tweeting inaccurate information about the election and its results. Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler suggested that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger – the state official in charge of overseeing elections and certifying the results – should resign after not finding evidence of electoral fraud in that state. Additionally, President Trump invited the leadership of the Michigan legislature to the White House, apparently with the goal of getting them to nominate different electors to the Electoral College that formally votes in the new president than those selected by the Michigan Democratic Party. The only legal basis for this occurring is if one believed that Joe Biden did not clearly or lawfully win the state, even though his margin of victory was in excess of 150,000 votes. Finally, a large number of Trump allies in Congress, the media and elsewhere supported these actions, implicitly or explicitly. Despite all these challenges, the votes were counted and certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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