After months of independent research, the Electoral Reform Society has now published a report on Reviving the Health of Our Democracy. On the plus side, we discovered that most people are as politically charged as ever, albeit mostly through individualistic modes of participation such as single issue campaigns. The downside, of course, is that they feel less and less like their political ideas and aspirations can be reached via traditional representative democracy. Turnout at most sets of local elections is now below forty percent. Even more alarmingly, last year’s Hansard Audit of Political Engagement discovered that the percentage of people who said they were sure to vote at the next general election fell below fifty percent for the first time to forty-eight percent. When less than half of the eligible demos turns up to vote, the legitimacy of the outcome is bound to be questionable. As we saw in Eastleigh, all of this can be exploited by smaller parties – the UKIP vote rose by over twenty-four percent comparing the by-election to 2010. Old alliances and loyalties appear to be crumbling.
While the disintegration of traditional party allegiances presents an opportunity for the Lib Dems, it also carries with it inherent risks. The party could get swept away with it all as well, particularly now that it is a party of government, and the danger of things not breaking the party’s way are particularly alarming under a First Past the Post voting system which is bound to introduce ever increasing randomness into general election results, particularly with the rise in the vote of other parties such as UKIP and the Greens. Add on top of that ever decreasing turnouts and the acuteness of the problem becomes even more apparent.
There is still widespread faith in representative democracy – people just want it to work better. Our report sets out several areas for discussion. Firstly, we need to clear the path to politics to ensure quality of access. The House of Commons needs to be “of the people” in order for voters to gain any sense that parliament works for them. All of the parties, including the Liberal Democrats, need to look at selection policy to ensure we have a Commons that represents 21st century Britain. Secondly, we need to improve the outcomes of elections so that every voice is heard equally. I’d start with proportional representation for local government – it is achievable and most of the arguments used to support First Past the Post fall by the wayside at local level. And that brings us neatly onto my final topic, which is about returning real power to local democracy. While most people like the idea of this, quite how to do it and what form it takes is another matter. Labour spent thirteen years in power without coming up with the definitive answer. The Tories built much of their 2010 election campaign around it in the form of “the Big Society” – but have had trouble turning that idea into concrete policies.
We’d love to hear your ideas around what needs to happen to revive local government. Email us at campaigns[at]electoral-reform[dot]org[dot]uk if you have something to say. In the meantime, you can check out the whole of the Reviving the Health of Our Democracy report here.