Scandal fatigue must not inure us to the crumbling state of UK democracy

To renew our politics, power must be wielded by more of the people more of the time. Local communities must exercise greater control over the key decisions.

Voting Ballot Box

As we mark International Day of Democracy, the spectre of democratic backsliding looms. While widespread disdain for politics is understandable, we must overcome it to defend our rights.

Tom Brake, Director, Unlock Democracy

“They’re all the same”. If you have ever canvassed for a political party, you will have heard that phrase on the doorstep.

Perhaps more than ever, this year’s Party Conference season will kick off in an atmosphere of bitter public derision. Collapsing schools is just the latest black mark against politics. The system as a whole is held in contempt.

This sentiment is not unique to the UK. The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy reported in 2020 a notable drop in global satisfaction with democracy, with fewer and fewer people having faith in democratic systems to tackle the most pressing issues of the day.

At the Global Summit for Democracy in 2021, then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said, “it has never been more vital to strengthen democracy at home, and stand up for our principles abroad.” Never one to underpromise and overdeliver, however, Johnson’s actions failed to live up to his inflated rhetoric.

Indeed, as a recent report commissioned by Unlock Democracy and Compass underlines, the quality of our democracy drastically declined during his period in office, amid repeated assaults on the integrity of elections, citizens’ political rights, and previously accepted norms in public office. We have seen systems of accountability tested as never before, with the holders of elected office breaching codes of conduct, democratic norms and sometimes the law itself. 

In some egregious instances – such as Partygate, the Dominic Raab bullying affair, or the scandal surrounding Owen Paterson – existing mechanisms have ultimately been able to enforce a degree of accountability. But as shown by the case of Nadine Dorries, unwritten ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ only work when everyone can be relied on to behave ‘honourably’.

It is indicative of a deep democratic malaise that an MP can be deemed not to have damaged the reputation of Parliament despite performing few, if any, of their duties – while drawing a full salary – and delaying their trumpeted resignation seemingly to coincide with the publication of their latest book.

The argument that these are simply the actions of a few rotten apples is belied by the government’s cavalier attitude to other basic tenets of democracy. In the name of electoral integrity, the government has simultaneously undermined the ability of the Electoral Commission to oversee elections independently, while, through the reckless introduction of photo voter ID, making it much more difficult for vast numbers of people to vote. Meanwhile, clampdowns on the right to protest and strike, and conscious attempts to delegitimize and weaken the power of independent regulators and the judiciary, have intensified since 2019.

All this means that as we head into Conference season, the reality of democratic decline has become so baked in that sounding the alarm often elicits no more than a weary shrug. Our expectations of what politics ought to be have been so lowered that merely not being the worst – Russia or N Korea, even – seems acceptable.

This is understandable. Every week heralds some new, previously resignation-inducing scandal. People rightly feel politics is out of touch, that there’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us. Fatigue and disdain have inevitably set in.

Moreover, the ongoing failure of politics to deal with ‘bread and butter’ issues leaves no room for other less tangible but nonetheless important matters. Worrying that our children may be at risk in crumbling schools. Ensuring that bills are paid and there is food on the table. These are rightly the things that matter most to us. Westminster, by contrast, seems alien and remote.

Mark Twain is said to have quipped sardonically that “if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” Sarcasm perhaps, but we cannot allow ourselves through cynicism or contempt to become accustomed to the degradation of democracy.

Several major international reports have identified a pattern of democratic backsliding. In their Global State of Democracy Report 2022, International IDEA reported that half of the world’s democracies were in retreat – and the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism had doubled in the last six years. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project concluded, meanwhile, that 35 years of democratic advances “have been wiped out”, with the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 returning to levels last seen in 1986. If we’re not careful, the UK will mirror this trajectory.

To renew our politics, power must be wielded by more of the people more of the time. Local communities must exercise greater control over the key decisions, and voting reform must ensure everyone’s vote counts. 

Power must also be constrained. Politicians must play by the same rules as the rest of us. Codes of conduct must be strengthened and sleaze rooted out. The House of Lords must be made accountable, no longer a social club for Prime Ministers’ cronies. A written constitution would hardwire greater protection for citizens into UK democracy.

International Day of Democracy (15th September) should be a celebration of promise redeemed, not a lament for freedoms relinquished. As the parties gather this autumn for likely the last time before the general election, we must dispel our disillusionment and demand our democracy back – before it’s too late.

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