It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.
Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.
But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.
In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.
So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.
Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and be judged in their turn at an election.
A parliament of representatives?
But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.
By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.
Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?
That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.
Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.
Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.
What kind of reform?
Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.
The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.
This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.
Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.
Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.
There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.
At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.
To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?
There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.
The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.
It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.
More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.
Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”