– From a talk for sixth-formers at Europe House for Parliament week
I think it would be counter-productive to try and tackle the issue of democratic legitimacy of Parliament without first talking about what we mean by democracy and why it is so incredibly vital.
Democracy is meant to ensure that every person has an equal say in how they are governed, and therefore some of the most important aspects of their lives. This extends from ensuring that in times of crises their friends and family will have the support they need to survive, to the wars that will be fought on their behalf.
Without democracy a tiny minority can dictate the social, economic and legal code, prioritising their own needs to the detriment of citizens. You don’t need to look far in time or distance to see the untold inequality and destruction that can happen when democracy falters.
A brief look at the different fates of North and South Korea since 1948 can show the stark difference. One pursued oppressive dictatorship, where between 300,000 and 800,000 North Koreans died annually of a three-year famine starting in 1995 and over 10,000 people are still thought to die in prison camps every single year. The other pursued democracy and ranks highly in education, quality of health care, ease of doing business, job security, tolerance and inclusion and has the 10th highest average wage globally.
I want to talk briefly about a young man called Jan Palach. Jan was a student at the Charles University in Prague, when the Czech National Communist Government began a series of reforms to increase democracy and liberalism for citizens. Concerned by the ‘de-sovietisation’, members of the Warsaw pact, the USSR version of NATO, invaded. In protest, on the 16th of January 1969, Jan walked into a public square and, in defence of democracy, he set himself on fire and died. He was only 20 years old.
Milan Kundera, the famous Czech novelist, wrote about Jan, and about the history of the Czechs and European democracy. He wrote: ‘History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow’.
Democracy is just as fragile; there are individuals and organisations that will always strive for more power and to ensure they benefit to the detriment of others. Even where democracy exists you have to exercise your democratic rights and have your say, because I can assure you even if you don’t, others will make sure their voices are heard.
Jan is not alone. In recent years we have seen young people marching, protesting, rioting and warring across the globe to try and secure the democratic rights that we take for granted. And we do take these rights for granted: many young people in this country do not vote. People often claim this lack of voting is limited to the youngest group, the under 25s, but this is absolutely untrue: 25-34-year-olds aren’t voting either.
And, you’ve guessed it, these are the groups who are struggling the most. Policies are not designed for their benefit, Parliament and Government does not speak for them. If you don’t exercise your democratic rights, they may not even exist.
So, everything I say from here on in is based on this premise: the system that exists now, that you can use, is a tool to ‘do’ democracy, not democracy itself. Use it or lose it.
So, what is democratic legitimacy?
Democratic legitimacy is gained by one thing: that it abides by democratic principles and is, therefore, accountable to citizens.
Although this may seem simple enough, different people will have different concepts of what constitutes democracy, or certainly the degree to which democratic principles can and should be adhered to – and how that should be done. To achieve the ultimate democracy, every single person should have a say in what happens: what is decided and how and with a completely equal share of the decision-making power.
Thinking about our own system, I want to talk about the varying levels of democratic legitimacy within Parliament. For example, it is much easier to say that the House of Commons is democratically legitimate than Parliament.
For example, reform to the House of Lords is continually on the agenda, with all of the three major parties promising Lords reform in 2010. The 1997 Labour Government removed the majority of Hereditary Peers, those who inherited their position in the House of Lords, but there are still currently 92 hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords
Unfortunately the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012, which would have ensured the vast majority were elected, as well as drastically reduced the numbers of sitting Lords, was abandoned after opposition from the Conservative Party, who had also included an upper chamber in their manifesto.
Some comparatively minor, but important changes have been approved in 2014 and now Lords can resign and those who have committed serious offences and have been sentenced to at least a year in prison can be removed, but evidently this is nowhere near a democratically legitimate system.
Looking at the most recent attempts at reform of the Lords in 2012 ironically shows one of the vital differences between Government and Parliament, and the reason that Parliament needs to be democratically legitimate.
Whilst Reform was Government policy, it was not Parliamentary legislation.
Policy is what the Government wishes to do, within existing legislation, or legislation the Government is hoping to pass. That decision-making process is not evenly shared across all citizens, or even shared across those they have chosen to represent them. These decisions are made by Ministers and their staff and unlike legislation, policy does not need to be agreed by the majority of the House of Commons. Although policies should be outlined in pre-election manifestos, there are currently 225 Government policies, and the majority of citizens do not know what they are, before or after elections.
Parliament, however, is the highest legislative authority in the UK, meaning they have the power to enact, amend and repeal laws proposed by the Government. Government cannot introduce laws without the agreement of Parliament.
Since 1911, the House of Commons is the only part of Parliament that is able to veto, or reject, a Government Bill. This means that while the House of Lords can force the Commons to reconsider a Bill, only the elected portion of Parliament has that final say. This is extremely important in ensuring that the final say on law in the UK is decided by people that citizens have elected themselves as representatives.
Parliament plays two other important roles, scrutiny and confidence. On behalf of citizens, Parliament can carry out investigations into the actions of the Government through select committees and asking the Ministers questions. And, if the majority of MPs in the House of Commons do not have confidence in the Government they can call a vote of no confidence. If a vote of confidence could not be passed within 2 weeks, this would force a general election, giving citizens the opportunity to vote in a new House of Commons and potentially a new Government.
And this is why the democratic legitimacy of Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, is so vital, because it allows for the democratic legitimacy of the Government and their actions. Either by approving draft legislation, wherein a bill becomes an act of Parliament, or by holding ministers to account through scrutiny and confidence. As Parliament functions as the voice of the citizen, it must truly represent the views and needs of those citizens.
The current system does not give each individual an equal voice, through equal representation. Depending on the MP constituency you belong to your voice may be less represented than another person’s voice. Constituencies do not have equal voter share, this means that one MP may represent over 110,000 citizens, or under 22,000. By definition, Orkney and Shetland is better represented than the Isle of White.
The reason I bring this up is not to admonish the British electoral system, but the reverse. I wish to highlight the profound changes that have happened in the last two centuries and continue to happen, which has allowed our democratic system to become increasingly more legitimate over time.
For example, before the 1832 Reform Act we had Rotten and Pocket Boroughs. These were constituencies with tiny electorates, one had as few as 7 voters. These constituencies were controlled by the landlords of the local area, so the very wealthy, usually sitting in the House of Lords, that could either have themselves elected or give the seat to a friend. In the 1832 Reform Act 57 rotten boroughs were abolished. To put that into perspective, there are only 650 UK Parliamentary constituencies today.
And, our system has changed in peculiar fits and starts. For example, women could be elected to the House of Commons 10 years before (1918) they even had the same rights to vote as men (1928).
I also want to highlight another important point, women’s right to vote? We fought for that. We knew that we could live in a more democratic system. Like those protesting in China today, like Jan Palach in 1969, like the men refused a vote because they didn’t have enough property, women knew how important their vote was.
The House of Commons is democratic, it could be more democratic, but it’s just a tool. You need to use it. MPs only represent you if you vote for them.
So, how can citizens ensure that the democratic portion is actually representing them?
Firstly, we need to improve the number of citizens who are voting drastically. The more citizens who vote, the more legitimacy the Parliament (and the Government) has. But the system has a problem, the less represented people are, the more disillusioned, and the less likely they are to vote.
I believe that politicians largely go into politics for the right reasons, they believe they can make a positive difference. The problem is that parties want to be in power. If they’re not in Government, they can’t do anything meaningful, so they have to chase the vote of the people who are going to turn up on polling day – at the moment, voters are older people and wealthy people.
Citizens who feel disenfranchised are the very people who need to use the system most to change their lives for the better.
And part of the problem is that the current popular political discourse is designed to make people feel even more disenfranchised, it paints Parliament as the Government as less democratic than they are, it lies by omission when not informing people of the amazing new ways they can become involved and actually change things. It, occasionally, even tells people not to vote.
One of the issues is the radical change in our news and media that has slashed newspapers ‘budgets and driven out more professional and established forms of journalism in favour of un-researched opinion pieces with little relationship to political reality. This is radically unfair to citizens, but new media business models are not paying and cutbacks are completely necessary for newspapers to stay afloat.
But, whilst new technology has had a detrimental impact upon traditional media it provides us with amazing opportunities to improve democracy and democratic legitimacy in Parliament.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is at this very moment carrying out a Commission into Digital Democracy and has been travelling the country speaking to people, some as young as fifteen, to find out what they think he should be doing to improve democracy within Parliament.
And technology has already made an enormous difference to democracy, knowledge is power, and technology has allowed us the opportunity to access knowledge in a way we have never been able to in the past. We all have the ability to find out what the Government and Parliament are doing, can access background information, understand our rights and make our voices and opinions heard.
Parliament publishes their activity religiously on their website. Parliament being parliament this has not been done in the most accessible manner. However, where Parliament hasn’t managed to get the tone right, the public has and new websites have emerged that can help you to access the information you need.
They Work For You is a website which will give you the exact activity and votes of your MPs, meaning you can judge them by their actions, not their words pre-election. This means that citizens can exercise their democratic rights with full knowledge of who and what they are voting of, rather than relying on rhetoric.
Digital can improve accountability, making it easier for citizens to speak directly to their MPs, and also by ensuring they can see whether their MP is representing their views. And the good news is that Parliament is taking this seriously and working towards improving the system and improving democratic legitimacy.
Parliament is a big beast and it takes a long time to create change, but it is changing. It is improving and advances in technology can make an enormous difference, but what makes the biggest difference is that citizens take these tools and use them, that is how you can ensure real lasting democratic legitimacy.