Can we make democracy work?

13 June 2020

In a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions

Trevor Cherrett

In the UK we, along with much of the rest of the world, are in the middle of the biggest economic muddle in generations. Global capitalism, which roundly triumphed over the collective models of communism in the 20th Century, is itself now facing an existential crisis. Sovereign nations struggle to cope with massive debt and the EU is in disarray. International financial markets plunge wildly in a perfect storm of uncertainty about the future

– Trevor Cherrett in Speaking truth to power: How politics could be transformed by an evidence-based approach, 2011

I wrote this paragraph in November 2011, following the economic crash of 2008. Now in 2020 we have an even bigger crisis to face with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The perfect storm has got stormier.

But we are still here. The political and economic arguments about the balance between austerity and growth after 2008 ended up with governments shoring up the banks and assuaging the markets, while `ordinary` people looked on, often feeling disgusted but helpless. Fierce public protests around the world such as the Occupy movement gradually fizzled out, as they were bound to. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn`s Labour Party attracted huge support for a growth agenda which sank into the sands of Brexit. But this tension between the political and economic arguments never really went away, and in the pending aftermath of the pandemic, it will be even greater, and not just because the economic fall-out is likely to be even larger than a decade ago.

Since the 2008 crash something else happened. Liberal democracies came under attack from populist parties – mainly on the right but also on the left –  who tapped into the anger of those who lost out from the banking bust-ups, often dubbed the so-called ‘left behind’. In sum, nationalism is on the rise, and globalism is in retreat.

So far, so familiar. But leaving aside the substantive arguments about what policies should be delivered to address urgent  economic, social and indeed environmental issues for a moment – such as whether we should once again attempt to reduce debt, or invest in a green economy, and so on – there is an existential question about how we should be governed, how policies and decisions should be made, and how our whole political system works.

Many questions abound about how we can now move forward. Does the rise of populist politics threaten the very notion of representative democracy?  Do we need to defend democracy, and if so what exactly needs to be done to strengthen it, or should we begin to acknowledge that it`s day is done and that we need to look for a different model of government?

Churchill`s often quoted (and misquoted) maxim that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ has a lot to answer for. I believe it has contributed to a complacent view that things might be bad in Europe and the UK, but that we cannot do much about it, and that things still aren’t as bad as they are in other places. But the rise of authoritarianism in China and populism in the USA and Europe are surely warnings for us too. [1] Given how bad things are at this juncture, should we not at least take a hard look at our democratic processes, to see how we can improve and strengthen them?

Five ways to rehabilitate representative democracy

My starting point is that Churchill was fundamentally right: democracy is the foundation for the fairest and least damaging form of politics, but that it can and should be radically improved – even rehabilitated –  to properly address the challenges it faces. So I am not arguing for revolution, but for a radical reform of representative democracy in the tradition of the Hobbesian state.

It has also evolved partly from my own experience of working within national and local government in different capacities. Thus, like all commentators, I am viewing the political scene through a particular prism. Through this prism I have witnessed many chronic deficiencies in the operation of the UK state across both the national and local levels. These problems deserve more detailed explanation[2] but for the purposes of this brief discussion I would summarise them as follows:

  • Political decisions are rarely based on the best evidence or science – that is, the best surveys, analysis, and lessons learnt from previous experiences.[3]
  • The UK government is far too centralised when it comes to making and delivering policy designed to meet the needs of very different geographical, social and economic conditions within the country.
  • The ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) electoral system is unfair and inefficient at electing political representatives
  • The House of Lords is something of an anachronism, but provides a valuable `second opinion` which deserves to be strengthened.
  • Political parties tend to reduce debate to a `football match` between parties, resulting in decisions that are less likely to be based on an informed debate on the substantive issues.

Most if not all of these criticisms have been rehearsed many times. Not everybody will agree with them, but they are not new arguments. Each of them are substantial in themselves, and together they create a massive dysfunction in the fair and effective running of a representative democracy.

Yet very little headway has been made on them over recent decades. Inertia and the threat they pose to vested interests appear to block the way.

In this paper I propose five major reforms that I think would make representative democracy work properly for our country, and that would help to resolve some of the damaging political tensions that have grown at all levels since the 2008 economic crash and amid the turmoil of the Brexit process,  and which will threaten us again in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Justifying policies and decisions on the basis of firm evidence

I believe we need to strengthen the evidence–based advisory role of the current civil service and local government officials through more coherent and transparent channels of information and analysis. An `Advisory Commission` (working title) would operate on the basis of the `scientific` approach[4], drawing upon the best peer-reviewed evidence from all sources including academia, independent think tanks, NGOs, and professions. Rather than Government drawing upon its favourite, often idiosyncratic, sources, decisions would rather be informed by the best available scientific evidence from a wide range of sources. This evidence would be peer-reviewed, and open to all and would provide the necessary foundation for a fully informed debate by elected representatives. Crucially, policy and decision-makers would be required by law to demonstrate how their decisions were taken in response to the available evidence. [5]

Devolving more power and resources from the centre

The UK is one of the most highly centralised countries in the world.  If we are serious about `levelling up` then we must devolve more power to regions, local authorities and local communities[6] The recently published UK 2070 Commission Inquiry into Regional Inequalities has called for new devolved , decentralised and inclusive administrative structures and resources which are sensitive to national and regional differences and local circumstances, and which  should also engage more people in the political and policy processes.

Make elections fairer

FPTP is manifestly not truly representative. There is nothing new here – the case for a more proportional representational (PR) voting system goes back for more than half a century, and for good reason. FPTP often sees national elections decided by battles in a small number of marginal constituencies. Alongside the US, the UK is one of only a handful of countries that do not have some kind of PR system. There is a body of evidence showing that countries with proportional electoral systems have considerably lower income inequalities, higher spending on social welfare, stronger environmental policies, have a better record on effective government and policy making, and significantly less involvement in armed conflict. [7]

But when it comes to electoral reform, party interests and public inertia – a lack of interest induced by what appears to be abstract, complicated and boring rules of engagement –  conspire to block change. Even when the greatest exponents of PR, the Lib Dems, finally secured a referendum of the subject as part of the 2010 coalition programme for government, it was squandered on the unattractive option of the alternative vote – which is arguably not a truly PR system in the first place. Now in the aftermath of Brexit the two-party state has returned with depressing familiarity, and there is no incentive for either party to change it, with the Conservatives opting for the status quo, for obvious reasons following their massive gains in the 2019 general election, and with Labour seemingly committed to `one more heave` under the estimable Keir Starmer, despite a lively campaign for electoral reform within the party.  So, it will be difficult to dislodge the tribal ambitions of political parties striving for absolute power.

Abolish and replace the House of Lords

Another reform that has been on the table for decades, and still only partially enacted, relates to the role of the House of Lords. The hereditary principle has of course no place in a representative democracy, but there is a case for replacing it with both a House made up of people with outstanding experience and skills which could function as the House of Lords partly does now, that is responsible for scrutinising legislation, and with a Citizens` Forum,  drawn by lot from the electoral register and charged with debating and advising on policies and decisions, informed again by the best information and analysis from the aforementioned Advisory Commission[8]. Both these houses would have significant responsibilities and powers to influence and modify government decisions, with terms of reference that would need to be carefully worked out to reflect their importance, and with responsibilities ranging from making amendments to outright veto power.

Limit the powers of political Parties

This is the most difficult and contentious area for change, but I believe strongly that the motivations and behaviour of political parties themselves lie at the heart of the malaise in our system of governance. While in previous centuries such behaviours grew out of a desire to represent particular interests – classically capital and labour – they now compete to run a complex state divided by many interests that are impossible to encapsulate in any one party. So, politics has become a football match between (and within) different teams competing for power – essentially a game in which victory often goes to the team that appears least worst to a public that are often already cynical about politics. And many take it as normal that the business of government is organised to keep the party of government in power, rather than necessarily to make the best decisions for the country. [9]

But isn’t there a better way? We cannot abolish political parties, but it should be possible to limit them by giving greater opportunities and support for alternative and independent candidates for election;  by giving elected representatives the responsibility for electing the executive – the prime minister and the senior ministers of state – via some kind of electoral college, and by limiting the power of party whips to force elected members to vote in a particular way. In this way, electors could elect the local representatives who best represent their interests.

What could possibly go wrong ?

Apart perhaps from the final proposal above – an electoral college of representatives who choose the prime minister and senior cabinet members –  none of these recommendations are unfamiliar. In fact most of them have been put forward at one time or another over recent decades. So, I am calling for comprehensive reform rather than revolution.

The fact that these reforms have not happened points to the inertia of our political system and the entrenched positions of those who benefit from it.

But leaving aside the barriers to implementing these reforms, what are the downsides? One argument would be that an executive elected by parliamentary representatives would not necessarily make a coherent team. But although the `team` chosen by a prime minister or a party may best represent a particular political `movement`, is it really in the best interests of the country? Is it not more likely to respond to the evidence presented by their selected advisors, rather than a broader base of evidence collated by a peer-reviewed advisory commission?  Even more pertinently, our history shows that executive government is characterised by rivalry, division and conflict, as much as unity or coherence.

A more general criticism is that this system would be too bureaucratic, bogged down in policy reviews and scrutiny, mired in the machinations of advisors and the debates of scientific experts. This was Max Weber`s argument in 1919, when he looked to the charismatic leaders of Western democracy for the way forward in the chaotic aftermath of World War 1, while being unable to foresee the events that followed in Nazi Germany.

And would today`s society accept the abolition of the presidential style election system in the UK, and the ‘X-factor style’ contest between competing politicians? The media would of course also resist this, as much of the `personality` would be taken out of politics. But the record of the last few decades in the UK – and the USA – suggests that the choice of strong, charismatic leaders such as Thatcher, Trump  and Johnson has created or exacerbated divisions in  society, divisions which highlight inequality and conflict.  It may be old-fashioned, but my argument here is that this kind of popular voting  may be fine for sport, entertainment, and celebrity culture, but  not for the political leadership of a complex  Western democracy.

Towards a better democratic model

In this paper I am arguing for a model of democracy that makes far better use of the knowledge, skills and understanding we have over vast areas of economic, social and environmental issues. This evidence is ignored too frequently in our political culture, for the tribal reasons I have outlined. By strengthening the link between policy and evidence, and strengthening the link between voter and politicians, I believe that we could make much better decisions for the good of our society. Those decisions will not always be` right` and will inevitably change as new evidence is gathered, and they will be interpreted differently by different value systems and cultures.  That is part of the scientific learning approach that has served us well in medicine, technology and many other fields of endeavour.

These are radical proposals, and in the UK we do not have a strong tradition of radical reform. Organic change, disjointed incrementalism – muddling through – is more the order of the day. But my argument is that muddling through is no longer adequate. Deep divisions in our society by ethnicity, generation and wealth, recently coming to the fore with public  protests against police behaviour and the toppling of emblems of imperialism, disaffection with existing politicians, and above all the apparent susceptibility of many in the population to populist rhetoric,  all seriously threaten the effective running of elected democracy. The coronavirus  pandemic potentially provides a `moment` that threatens to break up the current order, but also an opportunity for reform.

Essentially my thesis is that representative democracy in the UK and across the West is still stronger and fairer than the alternatives – but only if it is radically strengthened and improved by the kinds of measures I have set out. Otherwise I fear that it could be overtaken by its alternative models, with  demagogues attaining power through charismatic populist appeals to the people, or even with the emergence of totalitarian regimes like in China, that embrace capitalism to deliver the goods to the people but that stamp out personal freedoms.  I believe that by radically reforming representative democracy we can deliver outcomes that would be much fairer and more effective than many of the tribal, prejudiced, and populist decisions made today under cover of a complacent and cynical acceptance of the current distorted conditions of democracy.

And in a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions, and that brings people together rather than dividing them.

[1] See The new battle for democracy, by Steve Bloomfield in Prospect, July 2020

[2] I have written about these problems in some detail in town and country planning, the journal of the Town and Country Planning Association

[3] A very recent example is the failure to learn from the results of the pandemic trials run in 2018 which demonstrated the need for stockpiling personal protective equipment in huge volumes.

[4] Paradoxically, the government has made a great show of `following the science` in its policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But it has not been transparent in explaining exactly how it has done so.

[5] This does not imply that politicians must `obey` the word of the advisors. Advisors advise and politicians decide. This is not an attempt to create an `epistocracy` – that is, rule by the experts. In any case the `science` works by trial and error, not by ready-made solutions. Nor can experts be purely `objective`. But politicians must show how or why they have interpreted advice in the way that they have.

[6] Make No Little Plans : UK 2070 Inquiry into Regional Inequalities – Towards a Framework for Action;  chaired by Lord Kerslake;  Feb 2020

[7] For example, Birchfield and Crepaz (1998) : The Impact of Constitutional Structures on Income Inequality in Industrialised Democracies; European Journal of Political Research 34: 175-200; Carey and Hix ( 2009). The electoral Sweet Spot: Low -magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems; PSPE Working Paper 01-2009,. LSE London, UK; Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and performance in thirty six countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press; Economist Intelligence Unit (2017): Democracy Index 2017.

[8] Citizens` Juries already have a strong track record of performance, especially at the local level.

[9] For example, over the last decade Ministers for Housing and Planning (and no doubt many other Departments) have on average lasted less than 12 months in office. Such appointments are arguably best understood as rewards or as stepping stones for members of the political family.