Boris Johnson’s planned suspension of parliament has highlighted just how fragile and unfit for purpose Britain’s ‘democratic’ structures are. The decision to prorogue parliament for 5 weeks – the longest prorogation since 1945 – is a transparent attempt to block parliamentary scrutiny of the Conservative leadership’s Brexit plans or lack thereof. The fact that some of their media defenders have tried to paint this as in anyway normal is laughably absurd. This is an abuse of a parliamentary instrument that by convention has been used only for short breaks preceding a Queens Speech. Politicians, the public, and much of the commentariat are rightly outraged by this cynical exploit.
But while this outrage is not misdirected, we should not be lulled into seeing this simply as an aberration instigated by an aspiring despot within an otherwise functional and fine democratic system. The reality is that our so-called democratic system is riddled with flaws that undermine the legitimacy of our parliamentary representative democracy. Boris Johnson’s prorogation has simply stretched that legitimacy even further.
One of the most obvious ways that our democracy is broken is the fact that most votes simply do not matter in our first past the post electoral system. That is how 11% of the UK electorate in 2017 voted for the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and UKIP combined but between them these parties only got 2% of the seats in parliament (NB: The vote for these parties of course would likely have been way way higher were they not subject to the dubious but (under FPTP) understandable ‘wasted vote’ argument). The fact is that minority political viewpoints are almost entirely without any parliamentary representation in this country. This leaves the small percentage of the population that belong to the Labour or Conservative parties in a vastly more enfranchised position than the rest of us because they get additional votes over who their leader or MP-candidates are going to be. This is an endless disaster at a moment when we desperately need a more fluid agile responsiveness in our political system to the needs of the day and to the wishes of the electorate, in what is now something like a 5-party system.
There is a bitter irony to the number of commentators and politicians who virulently support or are conspicuously silent about the disenfranchisement of millions of voters through the First Past the Post system but are infuriated by Boris Johnson misusing prorogation in this way. Indeed, to defend the first but decry the second significantly weakens the moral force of the outrage. Both are after all perfectly ‘legal’ ways of shutting down diverse parliamentary viewpoints.
As well as these legal disenfrangisements, we have the almost blanket deprivation of prisoners’ voting rights in this country; and the legal but possibly immoral denial of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. We also have the erosion of local democracy by central government, which threatens to make councillors redundant positions with no real power. And we have the vexatious question of how we go about representing the fundamentally unrepresentable future generations who will inherit climate and ecological breakdown.
Clearly, we have deep questions as a society that we need to answer about what sort of democracy we would like to create. And while I have some ideas about what sorts of policies would widen democracy, I am humble enough to admit that my own personal democratic manifesto is not going to solve the deep lack of democracy in our society.
Instead, I think we should all be taking a leaf out of the handbook of demands put together by the Extinction Rebellion movement and look towards citizens assemblies to solve some of these issues of democracy.
Politicians cannot be at the heart of fixing political system that they themselves are beneficiaries of. That is why too many Labour politicians still support First Past The Post voting system, because it keeps their representation vastly over-inflated in parliament. It is why Conservative politicians oppose extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds, because young people not voting keeps Conservative MP numbers up. The fact is both these parties have historically and continue to be the beneficiaries of a non-democratic system.
These are not issues that parties with vested interests should be trusted to lead on. Instead, we should truly return control back to the people by creating a series of citizens assemblies to discuss, debate and ultimately craft a constitution to fix this broken democracy. These assembles would consist of randomly selected members of the public by sortition in much the same way that juries are selected. The selection process would also seek to balance demographics so that no region, gender, ethnic group, religion or sexuality is underrepresented in these assemblies. This model was used successfully in Ireland to draft recommendations in response to a whole range of social and environmental issues.
Additionally, we should make space citizens assemblies on those other issues aside from constitutional reform that parliament has shown itself unable to grapple with. There are at least two such massive issues today…
Most pertinently we have the climate and ecological crisis/crises that, if we do not get under control, threatens to collapse our society. XR has made a compelling case for a citizens assembly/ies to chart the way toward climate- and eco-safety by 2025.
Added to this is of course the vexing issue of Brexit itself, which politics as usual has palpably failed to settle.
I submit that citizens assemblies could well provide illumination on all these issues and extend democracy outside of the grasp of our zombie-like two-party duopoly.
We should seize the opportunity that Boris Johnson has given us through his constitutional vandalism by highlighting the deeply broken nature of our democracy and use it to call for drastic reform of our system. Perhaps then something good may yet come of what at first glance seems to be another nail in the coffin of Britain’s claim to be a founding bastion of democracy.
Three citizens assemblies: one on democratic and constitutional reform, one on the climate and ecological emergency, one on Brexit. This is how the UK could heal itself.