4 ideas to make our political system more democratic

The Telegraph reported yesterday that a House of Commons committee has called for the abolition of the monarchy’s role in signing off new laws. The Political and Constitutional Reform committee said that the role of the monarchy in giving approval to new legislation was “arcane and complex”.

The Queen and Prince Charles are still asked to approve laws which relate to royal powers, and Whitehall documents published last year (after Freedom of Information requests) showed that 39 bills have been subject to Royal approval.

The committee also claimed that government ministers are using royal approval as an effective power of veto over private members bills, by advising that royal consent should be refused.

The abolition of royal consent is a much-needed democratic reform. There are others though, such as the following:

1. Proportional Representation

The oddities of the current First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system mean the amount of support which a party has across the country does not directly translate into the number of seats it gains at Westminster. In other words, the political make up of the Commons does not accurately represent the views of the country at large.

FPTP also means voters who live in safe seats do not have a real chance of making their vote count, with political parties instead concentrating their resources on marginal seats.

The way to change this situation is to introduce a system of Proportional Representation (PR). One of the most prominent models of PR is the Single Transferable Vote system, which is used in local elections in Scotland, various elections in Northern Ireland (Assembly, European and local elections), most elections in the Irish Republic, and in the Australian Senate.

Other models include the Additional Member System (a hybrid of FPTP and PR, used in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly), and party list systems.

Speaking to Left Foot Forward, Will Brett, head of media at the Electoral Reform Society, said the current system resulted in “wasted votes”:

“Parties continue to focus all their time, money and effort on a handful of marginal seats, so just a few thousand voters can decide who runs Britain. And whole parts of the country are ‘electoral deserts’ where parties have no representation despite having real support. Just ask Labour supporters across the South or Conservatives in Scotland and Wales.”

2. The Right to Recall

The right to recall would revitalise democracy by making MPs more accountable to the electorate, and providing a strong incentive against corruption. The Conservative 2010 manifesto and the coalition document included commitments to introduce the right to recall MPs, but the government has not delivered on this.

When the government was thinking about introducing this policy back in June last year, their plans were criticised for placing the power to recall MPs in the hands of a committee of MPs, rather than the voters.

The most common proposal to implement the right to recall is to enable people to trigger a by-election in their constituency if they can get enough voters to sign a petition. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, argues that this should be 20 per cent of voters in a constituency.

3. An elected House of Lords

Various attempts at Lords reform have been made from the early 20th century onwards, but the anachronism of an unelected upper house still exists. The most recent failed attempt to reform the Lords took place in 2012, when the government dropped its plans for reform.

It is often argued that Lords reform is seen by voters as an irrelevance. However this has not always been the case. At the start of the 20th century, the Liberal Party’s campaign to reform the Lords gained widespread support by focusing on the theme of ‘peers versus the people’.

Guy Lodge and Michael Kenny also argue that Lords reform could strike a chord with the electorate, if it was tied to public concerns about unaccountable government and excessive power wielded by political, economic and media elites.

4. Scrap the Lobbying Bill

The Lobbying Bill, which passed through the House of Lords at the end of January, has been widely criticised as a draconian piece of legislation that will restrict the ability of charities and pressure groups to carry out their campaigning activities. The bill will place limits on the amount of money charities can spend on campaigning on political issues in the run up to a general election.

The campaign against the Lobbying Bill involves a diverse range of organisations, some of which have sharply conflicting views (for example, the National Secular Society and the religiously conservative Christian Institute). However all of these organisations are united against the Bill because it would make their campaigning work more difficult, no matter what cause they are trying to advance.

To make matters worse, the Bill will not even deal with the lobbying abuses which it was supposed to crack down on. It was reported in the Independent earlier this week that senior Tory peer Lord Blencathra has signed a £12,000-a-month contract to lobby MPs and peers on behalf of the Cayman Islands, a known tax haven. Representatives of the lobbying industry pointed out that the Lobbying Bill will do nothing to stop this kind of behaviour.

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