It’s blindingly obvious from recent political events in both the UK and the US that our respective political systems are almost irreparably broken. This is not only because they have both thrown up Right-wing governments, which a Leftie like me is bound to regret; but also because, quite irrespective of their outcomes, their procedures seem imperfectly democratic in several respects, and are open to manipulation by un- or anti-democratic forces, with occasionally disastrous results. This time in the UK it’s Brexit; four years ago in the USA it was Trump; but next time it could be anything or anybody. So this is not an essentially partisan point, although the Right, which has done most of the manipulating recently, might be more likely to resist it. Aside from that, however, the reforms to our system(s) that I’d like to propose (below), ought to be acceptable in principle to all democrats.
There’s a historical precedent for this. The biggest mass movement for democracy in Britain was born in 1838, and revolved around a ‘People’s Charter’, which called for six specific reforms of the parliamentary system as it stood then. They were: votes for all adult males; secret ballots; no property qualifications for voters; payment of MPs; equal-sized constituencies; and annual elections. All these save the last were eventually achieved, at least in a rough-and-ready form, and one of them – the first – was even extended, age- and gender-wise. So what is left?
It strikes me that if there were to be a new ‘People’s Charter’, aiming to repair the deficiencies in our present systems, it should have three major, essential and non-partisan ‘demands’, with others being added if there were enough support for them. (That support could be expressed, of course, through the new and reformed legislatures that would be created as a result of the first three demands.) Here they are: nothing terribly original, and in fact all pretty obvious, I’d say; but none of them achieved as yet.
- Electoral Reform. We have to bring in proportional representation for all important elections. Apart from anything else, it would allow new parties to form and grow, and so opinions outside the ideologies of the two major parties in the state (three in Scotland) to be ‘proportionately’ represented. It would also make compromise easier – indeed, probably essential. (That’s why the ‘conviction politician’ Thatcher was so much against the idea.) Personally, I’d be sorry to see the end of the close connexion between constituents and their local representatives which is the outstanding feature of ‘first past the post’; but there are, I believe, ways of combining the best features of both – as I’ve suggested before: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/. That should be comparatively easy.
- Democratising the Media. At present 80% of the UK’s print Press is in the hands of extreme right-wing billionaires, with agendas of their own, and an obvious impact on the ‘news’ they publish. Much of it is sheer propaganda. A ‘free press’ is not the same as a ‘free market’ press. The previous Conservative government promised an inquiry into this – Leveson Stage 2 – but then reneged on it. Press reform, in a way that can’t be seen to inhibit its real ‘freedom’, will be trickier than electoral reform; but other countries manage it. How do they do it?
- Restoring ‘checks and balances’. This has become a particular problem with the present UK government, which is seeking to override, and in many instances has already overridden, many of the institutions that were always meant to prevent unsafe laws or procedures being passed without proper scrutiny: the law courts, the House of Lords (yes: even them!), and the rules of the House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker. The same ‘Reform’ could also restore traditional Parliamentary sanctions against Ministers who tell lies. This should be relatively easy, as it’s essentially a ‘conservative’ – even a ‘reactionary’ – reform.
These should do the job, in Britain at least (America has other well-known problems it needs to address), and for a while, until those clever Rightists have found new ways of subverting the system that emerges. Beyond that, one could add some more demands, which might however be more controversial. I suggest the following:
- State funding for political parties, to replace donations from big business or trade unions; and accompanied by strict – and low – limits on political advertising.
- Educational reform – to encourage rational, logical and critical thought in the electorate. I can foresee a number of objections to this, some of them quite valid. (‘Whose rationality do you choose?’)
- Equal opportunities written into law, especially with regard to representation in Parliament.
Those would bring us up to the original Chartists’ ‘Six Points’. (And there are other political desiderata that could supplement these.) But it’s the first three demands that bear most directly on our parliamentary systems, and are the most urgent. If we had them in place today, just think what a change they could have made to both our countries’ present political situations!
Anyone want to start up a new Chartist movement? I know that there are other modern organisations that have taken on the name (I once signed up to a Swedish-based one, as it happens). But none of those, I believe, had as close an affinity with the first one.
I think I’ve agreed with you before about electoral reform. When I jotted down ‘Ten Steps to Better Government’ some years ago, PR was top of the list. When people tell me how important the ‘local representative’ is, I point out that since 1970, my views have never been represented in parliament by ‘my’ MP.
House of Lords: ever since, when I was a teenager, Ullswater was saved from greedy Manchester by a speech in the Lords by Lord (Norman) Birkett, I’ve had great respect or the Lords. Many’s the time I’ve woken up to hear the headline ‘the government were defeated in the Lords last night’ – and cheered!
Chartism: I expect you’re familiar with Mark Hovell’s book “The Chartist Movement” (completed and edited by T F Tout). Hovell was my uncle – or would have been if he hadn’t died in the Great War, and had also survived the 2nd.
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My – and my family’s – experience of ‘local MPs’ is very different. I’ve always found my own MP very responsive (but she is Labour); and my son got an awful lot of help from his (Tory) MP when he was trying to get his wife and Australian-born baby back into the UK from Australia, against incredible obstruction by Teresa May’s Home Office. (No surprise there!) – Glad you agree on the funny old Lords!