What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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Arguments over the Ministerial Code and the role of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests are far from over

Recently announced changes to the Ministerial Code demonstrate that the government is unlikely to place it on a statutory basis any time soon. Sir Peter Riddell argues that although some of the revisions are sensible, the new Code demonstrates the government’s determination to assert the privileges of the executive and reflects an increasingly presidential view of the Prime Minister’s role.

The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is neither fully independent nor entirely an adviser. His hybrid, anomalous position reflects wider tensions between ministers and advisers on standards which have been exacerbated under the current administration – and are unlikely to change after Boris Johnson won a confidence vote on Monday to ensure his survival as Conservative leader and Prime Minister. These tensions have reflected an increasing assertion by the Prime Minister of a presidential view of his role based on the mandate of the ballot box, as distinct from accountability to parliament. The limited changes in the latest version of the Ministerial Code only go a small way to address these concerns.

The public arguments over the Ministerial Code and the Independent Adviser have only partly been caused by the casual attitude of the current Prime Minister towards standards in public life, as highlighted by the repeated frustrations expressed by Lord (Christopher) Geidt, the current Adviser. That has led to widely supported calls from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) for a strengthening of his powers.

As with so much in standards in public life, the evolution of the Ministerial Code (originally the more prosaic Questions of Procedure for Ministers) and the creation of the Adviser’s role in 2006 have been the result of a series of allegations and scandals. These exposed the limitations of previous informal understandings and conventions and underlined the need for more formal codes of conduct and independent investigation. The Ministerial Code combines operational guidance about how business in government should be conducted and a list of expectations about ministers’ ethical behaviour in office, based on the seven principles of public life (also known as the Nolan principles).

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What happens if Boris Johnson loses a party confidence vote?

Conservative MPs will vote tonight on whether or not to retain Boris Johnson as party leader and Prime Minister. Robert Hazell explains that if Johnson loses, he might step aside immediately or act as caretaker until his replacement is elected. But he might instead stay on and seek to call a snap election, which could place the Queen in the constitutionally awkward position of having to refuse.

The political pundits predict that Boris Johnson will win tonight’s confidence vote amongst the Conservative parliamentary party. But what will happen if he loses, either this time or in a second vote at some point in the future? How long might it take for the Conservative Party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

Under current Conservative Party rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs (currently 180 MPs) vote in support of Boris Johnson, he can stay as party leader and Prime Minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months. But the rules can easily be changed. Theresa May won a confidence vote with a majority of 83 in December 2018, but was subsequently forced to announce a timetable for her departure under the threat of a rule change and new vote. She had been under pressure to say that she would go, and finally went after a disastrous European Parliament election result for the Tories in May 2019. Boris Johnson may similarly find that he survives the initial confidence vote, but his long-term position is not secure.

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The evolution of MPs’ staffing arrangements: how did we get here?

The current system of recruiting and employing MPs’ staff is not one you would design if you were starting from scratch, but before considering an overhaul, it is useful to ask how we got here. In this blogpost Rebecca McKee, who is currently running a project on MPs’ staff, examines the evolution of MPs’ staffing arrangements, providing some context to the current arrangements so we can understand how best to reform them.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has called for a Speaker’s Conference to consider a major overhaul of workplace practices in the House of Commons. Under our current system, it is MPs – not the Commons – who recruit and employ their staff, within a framework of regulations set out by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). While the devolved legislatures and many other countries have similar arrangements, New Zealand stands out as an example where MPs engage staff employed by the parliamentary authorities. This triangular employment relationship is not without its own problems.

The Parliament’s People Awards in March highlighted some of the brilliant, difficult work these staff do. But for most people outside of the parliamentary bubble these staff, their roles, and their employment arrangements are largely unknown. 

MPs can claim a package of expenses through IPSA to support their work. This includes their own salary as well as expenses to cover the costs of running an office, a place to live in their constituency or London, travelling between parliament and their constituency, and employing staff. Currently, MPs can claim up to £237,430 for staffing. This sum is calculated by IPSA on the basis that it would cover up to four full-time equivalent (FTE) staff with a mix of roles and responsibilities. However MPs, as the legal employer of their staff, can choose to employ any number of people within this budget. The allowance, and the number of staff it is designed to cover, has increased over the years. Figure 1 shows a timeline of the evolution of MPs’ funding alongside other social and political changes.

Figure 1
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Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics

Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit, looks at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held last week. He suggests that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to weaken, and there is no sign of the government offering any response that might strengthen them; its proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol risk making matters worse. Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, and is summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

The election results, though well forecast by polling, were reported in dramatic terms by media outside Northern Ireland, with coverage focusing on Sinn Féin displacing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party.

They reflect the increasing polarisation of Northern Ireland politics, fuelled by unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So Traditional Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, tripled its vote. The DUP lost approaching a quarter of its vote – but probably, with its line that only it could ensure there was a unionist First Minister, scooped up some support from the Ulster Unionists, who fared poorly. In the event, the DUP won 25 seats, more than many predicted.

But the line about First Ministers was heard even more on the other side, resulting in more nationalist votes going to Sinn Féin. That made it the largest party in the Assembly with 27 seats. The nationalist SDLP lost out grievously; with eight members, it is too small to gain a ministerial position.

The other notable phenomenon in the election, though, was the rise of the centre ground, those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist – which means now, almost exclusively, the Alliance party. Alliance more than doubled its Assembly seats to 17. It is now the third largest party, instead of fifth. The binary assumptions of the Agreement, that politics is essentially about unionist and nationalist blocs, may be increasingly unsustainable.

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