Political parties should be fixing our broken democracy. This is how they can do it.

Our democratic traditions need some TLC

Voting Ballot Box

Nearly two weeks into the campaign, it is hard to avoid the ubiquitous images on our TV screens and smart phones of politicians rolling up their sleeves, donning hard hats and hi-vis jackets, or pursuing watersports.   

This relentless, somewhat hackneyed electioneering, combined with the snowstorm of leaflets and direct mail that will be dropping through letter boxes in more marginal seats, should help drive millions to the polling stations on the 4th July. If people’s enthusiasm for the ballot box in 2024 is similar to the 2019 General Election, over 30 million will vote, around 65% of those on the register.

It would be wrong to consider this a cause for celebration. 

This figure takes no account of the 8 million people, eligible to vote in our elections, who are missing from the electoral roll.

But ironically, one policy area that is a no-show in the wall to wall General Election coverage is democracy, its fragility and its inadequacies.

Yet surely the General Election is the perfect, tailor-made opportunity to put democracy at the heart of the political debate.

These are just a taster of the questions that the media would challenge politicians on, and those seeking office would be overjoyed to respond to, if the state of our democracy was a matter of national focus and concern:

  • What are your plans to get nearly all the 8 million eligible voters absent from the electoral roll onto it?
  • Will you promote policies to reduce the barriers to voting and make it easier for people to vote?
  • How will you stop wealthy donors buying influence with their cash?
  • What measures will you promote to ensure citizens are central to, not peripheral to or excluded from, decision-making processes?

In a General Election, when parties are shying away from big spending pledges, the good news is that the answers to these policy questions are cheap to implement. Reversing democratic backsliding, starting to restore trust in politics and bolstering our democracy doesn’t come with the thumping price tag associated with unfreezing tax thresholds or cutting income tax.

Automatic voter registration (AVR), the tried and tested answer to getting the 8 million onto the electoral register, could save money. It reduces the need for electoral registration officers up and down the country to go door to door trying to identify voters. AVR is used in many countries around the world and is about to be trialled in Wales. No reinventing the wheel necessary. 

As a by-product, it would assist any party that granted the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds to ensure they were in a position to exercise that right, by automatically putting them on the electoral roll.

Proportional representation (PR) would also help. Finally there would be a reason to be on the register, and to vote, with everyone’s vote counting and counting equally. And before anyone says PR is too complicated, it is used in Scotland, Wales, NI and the London Assembly.

Reducing the barriers to voting can be achieved with the straightforward expedient of scrapping photo voter ID, an unnecessary, costly and discriminatory policy. Photo voter ID was costed at up to £120 million over 10 years.  Dump it, and there is another quick saving. And it will make it easier to vote. So next time former PM Boris Johnson forgets his photo voter ID, he won’t have to return home to get his passport or driving licence. And abandoning photo ID could stop 100,000 people being turned away from the polling station in a month’s time. 

Taking big money out of politics couldn’t be simpler. A new government could pass legislation that would cap donations at £5,000 per year, per individual or company, return the spending cap for General Elections to its 2019 level, and open up unincorporated associations, currently used as a way of channelling anonymous donations, to far greater scrutiny.

There is little need to devote much energy to finding imaginative ways to involve the public in decision making either. Citizens assemblies are commonplace in many countries around the world and can give people a voice in the issues they care about most. They mean citizens have opportunities to set the agenda between elections, and aren’t limited to that less than compelling chance to put an x alongside a name once every 4 or 5 years.

A new government will have priorities that the country wants addressed: the NHS, the cost of living crisis, climate change or crime. But they shouldn’t neglect our democratic traditions, the bedrock on which our society is built. They aren’t immutable and impregnable. It is time to show them some TLC.

Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy   

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