28 May 2009

My Ten Point Plan To Rescue Our Democracy.

After Cameron's clever waffle yesterday, that looked good but was purely designed to change as little as possible and protect the status quo, and Nick Clegg's truly radical and substantive effort today (shame he isn't more visible) - I thought I would add my twopenneth before conspicuously silent Brown follows behind and misses the point completely no doubt.

1. A Large Citizen's Jury To Design A System To Elect Our MPs and for local government (this debate shown live on TV) Any recommendations would of course be put forward to the people in a binding referendum held at the same time as the next general election.

2. Incentive Voting Make election day a Bank Holiday, but only those who turn up to vote get paid for or receive benefits for that day (for self employed or those who have to work, give them a tax free day as an incentive to turn up). This will not only encourage people to vote but also to register on the electoral roll.

When you think about it, the rewards to the individual of turning up to vote are actually miniscule, as it is unlikely that one vote makes much difference to the result (this is true under any system but especially under first-past-the-post where your vote only has a chance of counting if you live in the 15% of constituencies that are marginal). And yet the costs of turning up are a real disincentive. It is amazing how many people do bother to vote. But voting is a real benefit to society and our democracy and so a small incentive to compensate voters for their costs and efforts is appropriate. People could vote 'none of the above' or even spoil their ballot paper, as long at they turn up they would receive the incentive. A financial incentive like this would also appeal most to those voters that vote the least - the young, urban and poor.

3. Non-Voters Need Representing Too At the moment politicians can just ignore non-voters as irrelevant as they do not affect the result. In fact it makes life easier for politicians if there are large parts of the electorate they do not have to consider. This is of course terrible for democracy, the more these non-voters are ignored the more alienated and powerless they become (and the more exploited by our system). This skews our politics, as the young, uneducated and urban lower socio-economic groups have their needs increasingly ignored.

To redress this, I suggest that non-voters are represented proportionally in parliament by members of the electorate drawn by lot. So if 40% do not vote, 40% of parliament is drawn by lot. This would give a massive incentive to politicians to get the vote out and consider all the electorate's needs as low turnout would reduce their chances of being elected. After all, non-voters are not saying they do not want representing, just that they do not like any of the candidates on the ballot paper enough to bother turning up to vote.

4. Elect The Second Chamber I can't believe that in the 21st Century I am having to write this. The UK is the only country in the developed world to have a non-elected chamber making our laws.

But to preserve the uniqueness of the revising chamber (which would have its powers strictly laid out for the first time), members would be chosen differently and for longer terms than the Commons, maybe even 10-15 year terms to give people plenty of time to make an impact.

I propose electing 50% of the chamber in 'vocational constituencies', an idea I have pinched off Fiona McTaggert Labour MP for Slough. So elections would take place within different occupations - doctors, teachers, construction workers, nurses, shop workers, students, delivery drivers, cleaners, farmers etc etc, all electing a number in proportion to their size. Even the unemployed could send a representative. All hopefully knowledgeable within their fields.

I propose the other 50% of the second chamber made up by people drawn by lot. This would protect against the growth of 'career politicians' and give a laymans view to any experts in the chamber.

5. Strengthen Local Democracy The two most important aspects here would be firstly to break up the decade long monopolies, the stranglehold that one party can have on an area. The way to do that is to introduce a proportional system or even the single-transferable vote. For the first time, a sizeable number of Tory voters would be represented in Labour strongholds and vice versa, and all the minority parties would have a voice for the first time. This would do more to remove inept and corrupt government than anything else.

Secondly, rather than raising just 20% of its own revenue through local taxation, local government should be able to not only raise about 80% of its own revenue but choose the method of raising that revenue - so if it wants to widen the council tax bands it can. A proportional electoral system would protect Tory voters from being victimised like they were with the rates system in Labour strongholds in the 70s and protect the poor from the Poll Tax in Tory strongholds.

Directly elected Mayors would also give an area more of a voice on the national scene.

6. Fairer and Cleaner Party Funding Scrap the current £60m a year of state funding that parties receive (through 'Short money' and other parliamentary hand-outs) and hand this decision to the voters on the ballot paper by allowing them to tick a box to donate £3 of state funding to their chosen local party organisation or nothing at all if they choose not to tick the box (from the Power Report). This will also give another incentive for candidates to get out the vote and increase turnout. Voters would be free to tick a box of a party other than the one they vote for. This would distribute state money more fairly between the parties and cost no more than at present (30m votes times £3 equals £90m every election). I would also place strict £1000 limits per year on individual donations and £1 a head limits on organisations. So companies and unions could only donate £1 per shareholder or member per year. This would stop them buying up too much influence in our democracy. The voter would now become the main funder of our politics and the main influence on policy. As should be the case in a true democracy.

7. Ensure A Free And Well Functioning Media If your press is not truly free you are not living in a true democracy. We have a real problem with our media, it is distorting the news that we hear. Nick Davies in Flat Earth News explains that it is not just the proprietors of newspapers that influence press politics but the news feeds that the press rely on (mostly the Press Association and commercial PR).

The wealthy control the news feeds and the press then relay this information wholesale because it is cheap and easy to do. The difficult stories that challenge the status quo are expensive and risky and it costs money to check stories, so false PR stories rule the day. Commercial churnalism takes over from real journalism as journalists are too few in number and not given the time to investigate or check stories properly.

We need to continue to properly fund an independent widely accessible media (i.e. the BBC) and stipulate that it is not only to be as impartial as it can be, but willing to be constantly investigative and challenge the consensus view and lead debate rather than follow the press consensus as it seems to largely do at present.

Although the proprietors maybe only influence 20% of the politics of their newspapers, this is influential. We need to stop Rupert Murdoch being the first person to be greeted at number 10 after an election, and our party leaders flying half way round the world to court him on billionaire's yachts.

We need to go back to regulating properly ownership of our press, so it is not just left to 4 rich men living abroad to dictate our news. Increasingly they own all the local press as well, and the privilege of having A-boards all over a City should not be there to back one political candidate and spread damaging false stories about another. There should be rules governing the press's impartiality as there is for the broadcast media (though even this will be scrapped if Cameron is elected).

8. Strengthened Internal Party Democracy The introduction of proportional elections will increase competition between the parties for voters and members naturally and also increase the representation of the working classes in parliament. So parties will have an incentive to be open and democratic under PR. But without PR there would need to be rules to ensure that members are not ignored by their leadership - proper elections, primaries, proper votes on policy. All these things are completely absent from the Tory party and largely absent from the Labour party. The Tories charge £2 to send a text message in their 'open primaries' and allow multiple votes. Open primaries will be of little use if like in the US, they just generally elect the person with the most money and most expensive advertising campaign.

9. A Directly Elected President (by AV of course) Abolish any remaining powers the monarchy have and replace them with a directly elected president who can place a check on the executive (along with the second chamber with revision powers). Remove most funding from the monarchy and allow them to continue only as an interesting relic from our past to continue to attract tourists.

10. Finally A Written Constitution This will protect local democracy powers, the powers to hold the executive to account, the powers of the revising chamber, party funding and minorities and human rights in general.

I don't expect any of this will happen in my lifetime, but I live in hope.


  1. "I don't expect any of this will happen in my lifetime, but I live in hope."

    Still less in mine, Neil! (I am a quarter of a century older than you.) But this is a splendid programme and it would be good to see some movement towards even just a few of these proposals.

    On strengthening local democracy, I am surprised so little has been said south of the border about the fact that Scottish local authorities are now, if I understand correctly, elected by STV. Assuming that hasn't been a total disaster, we should surely be saying "if Scotland can do it, so can England".

  2. PZT: Surprised to hear you in your sixties.

    You right about STV in Scotland. It's funny how PR is only introduced in areas where it helps the Tories. The Tories have been reinvigorated in Scotland and Wales where they were forever condemned to 1 or 2 seats at most under first-past-the-post.

  3. Just to add, I thought about adding a number 11 to this post on MPs pay but decided that the restoration of democracy would probably soon sort that. MPs should have their wages fixed to the average (median) wage of 24k (plus a london allowance pehaps). On 65k plus numerous expenses, MPs live a very comfortable life. They need to know what it is like for the majority of us, otherwise how can they make judgements on pay and benefits for others.