Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored democracy, and what it looks like in Britain today. This week, we are digging a little deeper, and asking how we make democracy fair.
Perhaps the main way in which we have made democracy fair is by using secret ballots. Until the Ballot Act of 1872, people declared their preferred candidates out loud. This could lead to intimidation and bribery, as well as fights over votes. The introduction of secret ballots introduced the voting method we still use to this day – putting an X in a box next to our preferred candidate or party, and dropping it into a box. We can obviously still tell people who we vote for, or intend to vote for, but it is illegal to show anyone else our vote – you are not allowed to take a photo of your completed ballot paper, for example. This means that it is impossible for anyone to intimidate us because of our voting preferences as they have no (legal) way of knowing who we vote for. If anyone tries to bribe or intimidate us, it is for nothing, as no matter what we say aloud, our official votes are still secret and they’d have no way of knowing whether or not we voted for their preferred candidate.
Devolved Government and the West Lothian Question
As discussed in last week’s blog, although the UK Parliament sits at Westminster, and makes decisions affecting all UK citizens, some powers are devolved to more local levels. Local Authorities and Devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland allow some decisions to be made at a local level. This is sensible, as Parliament cannot make small decisions for every town and city. Instead, decisions specific to each area can be made by local representatives, who may have a more informed view of what is needed.
One area where this falls down is the West Lothian Question. Originally proposed in 1977, the question asks whether MPs representing Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be permitted to vote on issues in Westminster, which would only affect England and/or English residents. Every other country in the UK has their own devolved assembly to make country-specific decisions, over which Westminster MPs ordinarily have no say. There is, of course, a process to follow to decide what counts as ‘English only issues’.
First-Past-the-Post Voting System
The voting system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons, the people who will debate and vote on laws and the government, is called ‘first-past-the-post’. Under this system, the country is split into a number of ‘constituencies’ and, at a General Election, the electorate of each constituency elect their MP. To be elected as an MP, a candidate simply needs to win more votes than any other candidate in that constituency. It doesn’t matter if they win by 1 vote or 10,000 votes. Sometimes people say that votes for other parties are ‘wasted’ in that they will make no difference to the result unless they cause a different candidate to win. Some constituencies are described as ‘safe seats’ where one party always tends to win by a large number of votes. People living in these constituencies who do not favour the winning party may not feel they have much influence at an election. However, safe seats can be lost and there have been some famous cases where that has happened!
This system of voting is not proportionate – it means that political parties with support spread out across the country can gain many votes but little to no representation, whilst even independent candidates, with no party, can win if several thousand loyal supporters back them in their constituency. For example, in 2015, UKIP polled almost 3.9 million votes but won only one Parliamentary seat (won by someone who was previously a Conservative MP and was re-elected as a UKIP MP) whilst the DUP in Northern Ireland won 8 seats with just 184,000 votes spread over a handful of constituencies.
Constituencies are areas of the country, represented by a single MP. The boundaries have previously been drawn to represent a similar number of registered voters. However, the smallest constituency by population, the Western Isles of Scotland, has only 22,000 voters whilst the largest, the Isle of Wight, has 110,000 – both electing just one MP. Obviously it is not possible to redraw the boundaries of an island, but there has been some concern about the fairness of having constituencies of such different sizes (including on the mainland UK), especially if smaller constituencies tend to be in areas that support one particular political party (and therefore fewer votes would be needed for that Party’s candidate to win). It has been suggested that the boundaries be redrawn to try to make the constituencies more evenly matched by population. There are also suggestions to change boundaries in order to represent not only those who are registered but also those who are eligible to vote.
The Boundary Commission of England is drawing up proposals to alter the constituency boundaries to make them fairer and more representative of all eligible voters. This could lead to the number of seats in Parliament falling from 650 to 600. These changes would lead to more balanced representation for voters across the country.
Diversity in Parliament
The 2017 general election has been hailed as returning the most diverse parliament in British history. Having a diverse parliament which reflects the diversity of British society helps to give Parliament different perspectives from MPs with different backgrounds. The number of female MPs has risen from 191 to 208; it was only 99 years ago since the first woman was elected to parliament, and 98 years since the first woman took a seat in Westminster. Openly identifying LGBT MPs rose by 40% in the 2017 election, with 45 LGBT elected to Westminster. The number of ethnic minority MPs also rose in the recent election, from 41 to 52 MPs, with Preet Gill taking her seat as the first female Sikh MP to serve in British Parliament. There is not yet any definitive data recording the number of MPs who identify as disabled, but there are several MPs now serving with a range of disabilities, including hearing impairment, visual impairment and Cerebral Palsy. The UK Parliament obviously cannot represent every single ethnic group or category of individuals and it is important to remember that the most important criterion for picking MPs is whether the electorate of their constituency agrees with their policies or not, and should not be the ethnicity, gender or sexuality of the candidates. However, having a diversity of MPs is good for society, so it is important we encourage people from all kinds of backgrounds to put themselves forward as candidates.
Another way that we try to make democracy fair, is by holding referendums. Referendums are held to ask the public a direct question and gain their opinion. Since 1973 there have only been eleven referendums in Britain. There is some debate over whether referendums are a good way of making decisions and how often they should be used.
Under British law, referendums are not necessarily legally binding unless otherwise stated in an Act of Parliament (such as the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014). However, an advisory referendum is still usually considered a compelling reason to pursue the policy voted for, otherwise, it would leave the democratic legitimacy of Parliament and the point of holding the referendum in doubt.
In 2014, Scotland held a referendum to decide whether to become independent from the UK. The Government declared that this would be legally binding. The ‘No’ campaign gained 55.3% of the votes and so Scotland remains within the UK.
In 2017, there was a UK wide referendum to decide whether the UK would remain a member of the EU. Although this was not legally binding, the Government vowed to follow the result. The deciding vote to leave the EU gained 51.9% of the vote, and so the move to begin leaving the EU has begun.
Parliamentary petitions are a way in which the public can get responses from parliament directly. Any British citizen or UK resident can begin or sign a petition. After a petition gains 10,000 signatures it will receive a response from the government, and after gaining 100,000 signatures it will have to be considered for a debate in parliament. This allows the public to suggest issues which are affecting their lives and are most important to them. Although we already have MPs to represent us, this gives the public a voice to be heard more directly by those in Westminster on a particular issue.
Democracy is never perfect, but in the UK it is often as fair as possible. Parliament is now more diverse than ever, and ongoing research aims to try and make elections represent as much of the electorate as it can. These ongoing improvement will hopefully inspire future generations to continue making our democratic system fairer for all affected by it, and that they all have the opportunity to change the future.