Everyone should have the right to participate fully and equally in decision-making, both at the national level and within their local community, so that they can influence the decisions that affect them in different areas of life.
Fairness and democracy
Democracy and fairness are interdependent. An unfair society undermines the health and even the viability of democracies; if some people do not have a fair opportunity to make the most of their lives, their faith in democracy can be undermined and they are likely to be attracted to anti-democratic populists or even to extremists, as we have seen in a growing number of countries in recent years. At the same time, a healthy democracy is vital for building a fair society. If people have a say in how they are governed, the quality of decisions made and laws passed is better, and citizens are more likely to abide by them.
Getting the balance right
As soon as a country becomes a democracy, a certain level of procedural fairness is built into society. However, large and mature democracies like ours have to make a series of trade-offs to maximise fairness, protect their legitimacy and/or increase their efficiency, resolving tensions such as whether voting should be through a majoritarian or proportional system, how much power to devolve to regional or local areas, how broadly to define the electorate, how best to curtail the disproportionate influence of the wealthy or well-connected (or any other interest group), and so on.
We may despair of the compromises of politics and the imperfections of democracy… but we can never despair of procedural fairness. We need voice, participation and the opportunity for control and accountability. Democracy affords these processes and values, which is why we must cherish it to the last. Fair democracy - coupled with genuinely competitive, plural markets and the institutions that surround them, which guarantee debate, argument and deliberation - offers the best means to ensure that economy and society are governed by due desert. Only in that way will the entrenched elites who have secured undue desert be challenged effectively.
Will Hutton, Them and Us
Where we fall short
There are several ways in which our democratic system falls short of an ideal of fairness. For example:
- Our current ‘first past the post’ voting system is unfair. The number of MPs that a party has in parliament rarely reflects the total number of votes received, while the millions of voters in ‘safe seat’ constituencies have little opportunity to influence the results of elections, effectively disenfranchising them (especially if they don’t support the incumbent party).
- The way in which constituency boundaries are worked out is another source of potential unfairness to both voters and political parties.
- Our unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, is oversized and unaccountable.
- Women and ethnic minorities are grossly underrepresented in parliament and in politics.
- Decision-making power in the UK is overly centralised, contributing to high level of regional inequalities and exacerbating the economic dominance of London and the south-east.
- Efforts are being made to disenfranchise many people in deprived communities by requiring voter ID, in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to reduce supposed electoral fraud.
- The wealthy have an undue influence on political parties due to an opaque and outdated system by which those parties are funded.
- We have failed to sufficiently regulate lobbying, despite a succession of recent scandals.
- The voices of some groups are not heard as much as they should be; for example, people from ethnic minorities are routinely under-represented in supposedly representative opinion polls.
What needs to change
All of these issues need to be tackled so that we have a properly functioning democracy, which is a prerequisite for a truly fair society. We cannot build a fairer society if those who benefit the most from the status quo have too much sway on the decision-makers.
Replacing our first-past-the-post electoral system with a form of proportional representation (PR), such as the single transferable vote, would arguably help to build a fairer society, grounded in a fairer democratic system. As well as giving voters a fairer degree of influence over the outcome of elections and giving political parties a fairer number of seats based on their share of the vote, research shows that PR systems tend to produce societies with lower levels of inequality, higher levels of public spending, and a fairer distribution of public goods. PR systems tend to generate a form of politics that is more based on argument, real interests and public negotiation, where the makeup and policies of the government reflect public opinion more accurately than is the case under first-past-the-post.
We should introduce a reformed House of Lords that reflects the diverse skills and knowledge of the British public, where representatives are chosen through a proportional system. A democratic upper house would put pressure on the Commons to become more legitimate and democratic itself.
We need to have a serious and balanced debate about the price and value of democracy and MPs’ pay and benefits, that goes beyond the simple financial arguments to discuss what we want our MPs to do, who we want to do it, how we want them to do it, and how much we should pay them for it.
We should improve the representation of women in parliament by enacting Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections to the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The legislation already exists, it just needs to be enacted.
A good way to improve regional and local democracy, and possibly to reduce regional inequalities, could be to introduce further devolution of power away from Westminster. A uniform shifting of power and resources to mayors and councils, including more tax-raising and borrowing powers and a range of responsibilities over health and social care, education, housing and transport, could lead to better policy outcomes that are more informed by local needs and priorities. However, there are risks too. Greater powers over taxation could exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor areas. Devolution could be complemented by the increased use of deliberative democracy approaches, such as citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries, at local, regional and national levels. Deliberative processes tend to encourage more consensual and long-term thinking (and more progressive viewpoints), and are seen as legitimate because they allow representative groups of citizens to arrive at robust conclusions by bringing together a range of opinions and considering them collectively and in detail. Devolution can also work at the level of transferring power and resources to local neighbourhoods, building on the successes of New Labour’s New Deal for Communities programme, as recently proposed for a new generation by the centre-right think tank Onward.
Attempts by the government to reduce the electoral franchise in the name of clamping down on voter fraud should be opposed. A broad range of charities, campaign groups and trades unions have condemned the government’s elections bill as “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”.
We need a fairer model for funding our politics – one which put voters at the centre. An open, clean and fair model of funding the parties would give taxpayers far better value for money. It would ensure that politicians don’t have base decisions on the interests of trusts, union bosses or City interests. The Electoral Reform Society proposes three reforms to party funding:
- A cap on the amount that anyone can donate to a party, to end the big-donor culture that has led to scandal after scandal (in August a Tory donor called for a £25k cap; Open Democracy has gone further and suggested a cap of just £50 per person)
- An increased element of public funding for parties, to bring the UK into line with other advanced democracies
- A cap on the amount that parties are allowed to spend, to end the arms race between parties at election time
We need to clean up lobbying. Transparency International is calling for three changes:
- A comprehensive lobbying register that includes in-house lobbyists working for companies, NGOs, charities, trade associations, lawyers and accountants
- Relevant information to be included in the lobbying register, including its purpose (what they intend to influence, when it took place, who was involved, how much money is being spent)
- Replacing the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) with a statutory body with sufficient authority and resources to regulate and not just advise on the post-public employment of former Ministers and crown servants (and extending the regulated period from the current level of two years after leaving post; Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, is considering introducing a five-year ban on lobbying for Ministers after leaving office, with fines for those who break the rules, as well as anti-lobbying clauses in their contracts, requiring the government to publish details of lobbying meetings monthly, following an emergency review carried out in the wake of the Greensill scandal).
We need to take steps to increase the voice, representation and participation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups, including by ensuring that opinion polls are genuinely representative of all groups in society, and taking proactive steps to encourage and enable members of marginalised and disadvantaged groups to vote in elections.
As inequality grows, so does the political influence of the rich. Concentrated wealth leads to concentrated power. Squeezing the top 1% ought to be the most natural thing in the world for politicians seeking to please the masses. Yet, with few exceptions, today’s populist insurgents are more concerned with immigration and sovereignty than with the top rate of income tax. This disconnect may be more than an oddity. It may be a sign of the corrupting influence of inequality on democracy.
The Economist, July 2018
Democracy and fairness
The idea of procedural fairness is the one of the central ideas of democracy – that each person has a say in who governs them. But in practice, this is not enough, because on closer examination, the key requirement of a democracy is that every person should have the same opportunity to express their views and to influence the decisions that are made in their name, and who makes those decisions and how. Some people might need more help than others to exercise this right (such as helping the elderly or infirm to vote), while rules might be needed to ensure that other people do not have an undue influence because of their status, connections to those in power or wealth.
We should aim for equal opportunities for effective political influence, not equal political influence. Some inequalities in political influence are acceptable, for example, because some people choose to devote more time and efforts to politics than others. But it is unfair if some people have greater opportunities to influence decisions than others purely because they are wealthier.
Democracy and fairness are interdependent. An unfair society undermines the health and even the viability of democracies; if some people do not have a fair opportunity to make the most of their lives, their faith in democracy can be undermined and they are likely to be attracted to anti-democratic populists or even to extremists, as we have seen in many countries in recent years. At the same time, a healthy democracy is vital for building a fair society. If people have a say in how they are governed, the quality of decisions made and laws passed is better, and citizens are more likely to abide by them. Democratic societies are less likely to favour the interests of a narrow elite over the majority of the population than autocratic regimes (although a democratic system is by no means a guarantee of such an outcome, and majority rule can sometimes lead to the disempowerment, impoverishment or even persecution of minorities).
As Will Hutton argues in Them and Us, as soon as a country becomes a democracy, a certain level of procedural fairness is built into society (if not necessarily into the economy): “There must be equality of voice; rights of participation; the right of free expression; real political choices; clear, transparent and public procedures; respect for the dignity of each speaker; vote and voice. Institutions that protect these processes grow up spontaneously. There must be a forum, assembly or parliament. There must be an independent custodian to guard the propriety of the electoral and deliberative process. Courts must offer due justice in a procedurally fair way. There have to be checks and balances between judiciary, executive and legislature.”
However, large and mature democracies have to make a series of trade-offs to maximise fairness, protect their legitimacy and/or increase their efficiency, resolving tensions such as whether voting should be through a majoritarian or proportional system, how much power to devolve to regional or local areas, how broadly to define the electorate, how best to curtail the disproportionate influence of the wealthy or well-connected, and so on. Sometimes there are trade-offs between fairness and efficiency, such as between proportional voting (fairer but can lead to the formation of unstable and ineffective coalitions) and majoritarian voting (less fair as some votes count less than others, but widely believed to lead to stronger governments, although recently the evidence looks less robust). Similar trade-offs can be observed in the debate about retaining our centralised model of government or devolving more power to the regions.
As Hutton concludes, “We may despair of the compromises of politics and the imperfections of democracy… but we can never despair of procedural fairness. We need voice, participation and the opportunity for control and accountability. Democracy affords these processes and values, which is why we must cherish it to the last. Fair democracy - coupled with genuinely competitive, plural markets and the institutions that surround them, which guarantee debate, argument and deliberation - offers the best means to ensure that economy and society are governed by due desert. Only in that way will the entrenched elites who have secured undue desert be challenged effectively.”
The situation today
Our current ‘first past the post’ voting system is unfair. The number of MPs that a party has in parliament rarely reflects the total number of votes received. For about 90% of the time since 1935 we've had single-party 'majority' governments, but not one of them had the support of a majority of voters. The Conservatives currently hold a majority of seats with just 43.6% of the votes. In the 2019 election they gained an extra 48 seats despite an increase of only 1.2% of the vote share. Meanwhile the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party received 16% of votes cast between them, but shared just 2% of the seats. It took 26,000 votes for the SNP to win a seat compared with over 800,000 for the Green Party; Labour had to gain over 50,000 votes to elect each MP, while the Conservatives needed only 38,000; and over 600,000 votes for the Brexit Party won no seats at all. ‘Electoral bias’ (the difference in seats between the two main parties if they both get the same number of votes) helped the Labour party from 1992 to 2010 and helped the Tories from 2015 to 2019. The first past the post system also denies voters in safe seats the opportunity to have a real influence on the outcome of a general election. Many seats haven't changed hands in 100 years, and elections are decided by a few thousand swing voters in a small number of marginal constituencies. If just 533 people had voted differently in 2017, it would have given us a majority government instead of a hung parliament. It is no wonder that tactical voting is rife and that voter turnout at general elections is low. There are similar issues with local elections.
The way in which constituency boundaries are worked out is another source of potential unfairness to both voters and political parties. The Sixth Periodic Review of Westminster constituencies is making a third attempt at suggesting new constituency boundaries to reflect changes in population across the UK. Rules introduced by the coalition government in 2011 tried to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats. but the proposed boundaries produced in 2013 were not implemented when the Liberal Democrats refused to support the move following the lack of Conservative support for Lords reform (see below). In 2018 the Boundary Commission proposed a new set of boundaries, which were abandoned due to disagreements within Theresa May’s government. The proposals to reduce the Commons to 600 seats were dropped in 2020, and the new proposals, due to be published later this year, are an update to the current boundaries and 650 seats. The process is open and has to follow a complex set of rules, so it is arguably procedurally fair, but the outcome is bound to disadvantage certain parties as well as reducing the influence on election results of voters in certain constituencies, and the limitations of the first past the post system mean that the boundary review is unlikely to achieve its supposed aim of ensuring that ‘every vote cast in a general election will carry equal weight’.
Reform of the House of Lords would also improve the fairness of our democracy. The UK is alone in Europe for having a totally unelected revising chamber, and at around 800 members it is grossly over-sized; only China has a bigger upper house, and they merely meet to rubber-stamp government policies, while France has 348 members, Spain has 266, and India, with over a billion people, has 245. Millions of pounds are claimed in expenses each year by Lords who barely contribute. Many have a web of business interests, with peers given almost total free rein to lobby on behalf of others, and we have no way of removing them from office. There is overwhelming support for change from across society – two-thirds of voters want an elected second chamber – and from all political parties. In 2012, proposals to introduce an elected upper house secured the backing of a majority of MPs, but the reforms were scuppered at the last minute by a falling out between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
The problem of what level of pay and benefits for MPs is fair is highly controversial. Margaret Thatcher laid the groundwork for the 2009 expenses scandal by encouraging MPs to use allowances as pay in lieu of increasing their official salaries. In 2020, the basic annual salary was £79,468, just under three times the national average salary of £28,600. Boris Johnson opposed plans to increase this by 4% in the context of public sector pay freezes in response to the pandemic. There are several arguments for paying MPs a reasonable salary (although how this is defined is difficult). Reducing MP salaries to, say, the level of the average voter would deter many good professionals, leaving only the wealthy to stand for Parliament. Keeping MP salaries at a reasonable level (and perhaps even increasing them slightly) would open the way to restricting the ability of MPs to take on additional jobs, which can lead to conflicts of interest (see lobbying, below); it would enable expenses and allowances to be minimised; and it would recognise their extremely high workload (constituency casework has increased hugely in recent years, even more so in the last year due to COVID). However, even though it was the Chartists who demanded that MPs be fairly paid, the 90% of voters who are paid less than MPs are unlikely to accept any of these arguments willingly. And the counterargument is that higher MP salaries attract individuals into politics for the wrong reasons (the financial perks rather than the public service ethos).
Women’s representation is still shockingly low at almost every level of politics. Only 34% of MPs are women. We don’t know many women stand for selection and election every year, because political parties don’t have to publish data on the diversity of their candidates or those who put themselves forward. Knowing this would help improve women’s representation in our parliaments.
Decision-making power in the UK is unusually centralised in London, despite the devolution of certain powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Blair government and a limited amount of devolution to some English regions in 2015. The right-wing Centre for Policy Studies drew a direct link between the over-centralisation of power and regional inequalities in 2019, an argument that echoes aspects of the current government’s emerging ‘levelling up’ agenda. It argued that incentives are needed for more private sector investment outside of London, a view that has some parallels but also important differences with a left-wing analysis that the economy is distorted by an excessive focus on the needs of the over-large finance sector. There is a broad consensus that devolving more power outside London, including to the English regions and also to local authorities and local communities, would be fairer not only because it increases people’s ability to exert their democratic rights, but also because it would encourage the development of a more regionally balanced economy. But devolution has gone backwards in the last few years, and recent centralising tendencies have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis. It has become common for constitutional observers to claim that ‘England is the gaping hole in the devolution settlement’; whereas developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the past twenty years have led to considerable powers being devolved, England remains one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe and is still run primarily through powerful UK-wide institutions.
The question of electoral franchise (who is able to vote) has a fairness dimension. The government has just tabled the elections bill, which is supposedly designed to ensure that elections remain fair and secure, but has been accused by the opposition and civil society organisations as being intended to rig elections in favour of the Conservatives. It will require anyone who votes in person at a general election across the UK, or in local elections in England, to show photo ID first. Critics say the plan is an illiberal and expensive overreaction to an almost non-existent problem and could put off many thousands of people from voting, with some likening it to US Republican-style voter suppression tactics. In the last seven years there have been just three convictions for voter impersonation, while a government analysis has said up to two million people may lack the necessary ID to vote, many of them elderly, young, disabled, transgender, homeless, working class and/or from ethnic minorities. The Electoral Reform Society said the plans could lead to ‘disenfranchisement on an industrial scale’. In small-scale trials, hundreds of voters were turned away. The bill will also allow long-term expats to vote and donate; currently, British nationals who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are barred from voting or donating to UK parties. Labour say that the rule change is intended purely to benefit the Conservatives, given the number of major donors the party has who live overseas. There are also debates as to whether the right to vote should be extended to under-18s and to convicted prisoners.
A key issue is the unfair influence of money on politics, from all sides. The ability to purchase political influence is damaging to trust and confidence in our democratic institutions. Senior politicians from many parties have been held to ransom by those with the deepest pockets, leading to many scandals over the years, from Labour’s ‘cash for honours’ crisis, to the Liberal Democrats being caught arranging a private meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for a potentially illegal donor. A report by the Electoral Reform Society points out that donors have an expectation of being able to influence party policy (or to receive an honour or a peerage). Political parties rely heavily on donations to fund their costs, including election campaigns, but some receive much more funding from this source than others (between 2013 and 2017, the Conservatives received 50% of all donations). Trades unions provide some balance to the influence of wealth on politics, but their donations have reduced in line with their influence and power in recent decades. Even when donations are legitimate, it gives those with the most money a disproportionately large say, and skews politics away from ordinary people who should be at the forefront of politicians’ minds when they are making decisions. There is also the threat of the influence of overseas ‘dark money’ on elections made possible by technology.
A closely linked issue is lobbying. Lobbying is an essential part of our democracy because governments and legislatures need to engage with those potentially affected by their decisions, but this process can be abused by those looking to further private interests. It also unfairly favours those with more resources available to invest in lobbying elected politicians (such as large companies). There have been a number of highly publicised lobbying scandals in recent years, such as the 'generals for hire' scandal, where former military figures were caught flouting a ban on lobbying the government over multi-million-pound contracts, the Lord Blencathra scandal, who received payments to lobby on behalf of the Cayman Islands; the 'cash for access' scandal, where two senior MPs were caught allegedly offering their services in return for payments; the diesel scandal, which has raised questions about how the car industry has lobbied public officials over emissions standards; and most recently the Greensill scandal, where former PM David Cameron informally lobbied for Greensill Capital to be given the largest possible allocation of government-backed loans under the COVID-19 corporate financing facility. Boris Johnson has ordered a formal inquiry into lobbying by Cameron, but the inquiry has a narrow remit, cannot compel anyone to give evidence, and its recommendations will not be binding, while calls for a more serious inquiry into lobbying have so far been rejected. Meanwhile, some on the left argue that the close ties between politicians and businesses, and the consequent high levels of business access to public authority and revenue, represent a form of corporate state capture.
Another basic problem that drives unfairness is that the voices of some groups are not heard as much as they should be. For example, research suggests that, while people from ethnic minorities make up 14% of the population, they are often hugely underrepresented in ‘nationally representative’ polls, with ethnic minority representation ranging below 10%, and sometimes even 5% or lower. This is exacerbated by the fact that people from ethnic minorities are still less likely to take part in political activities, to be on the electoral register, or to vote. As Operation Black Vote point out, “without a strong political voice for African, Asian, Caribbean, Chinese and other ethnic minorities, the ideal of equality of opportunity - regardless of race and colour - will remain an ideal”. There are also issues with the accessibility of some polling stations to disabled people (and with the digital exclusion of some poor and elderly people from online initiatives, although this is becoming less of a problem as the proportion of people who are not online continues to decrease).
Learning from other countries
Most European countries adopted proportional representation electoral systems in the early 20th century. For example, Norway’s parliament has 169 MPs, with 19 constituencies each electing between four and 20 MPs based on a formula that accounts for both population and area. All but one seat in each constituency is allocated on the vote in that constituency, with the final seat allocated at the national level to guard against small parties losing out in smaller constituencies. The Norwegian electoral system leads to frequent but often stable minority governments and a clear two-bloc party system, avoiding the months of coalition negotiations between smaller parties that blight proportional representation systems in other countries, such as the Netherlands.
Norway is also an interesting case study of how the funding of political parties can be reformed to curb the influence of interest groups. All political parties in Norway receive the majority of their income from government subsidies, allocated on the basis of the share of votes in the previous election and the representation in the elected body. There are bans on donations from foreign interests and anonymous donors. However, there are only bans on corporations that are partly owned by the government, no bans on donations from trade unions, and no limits on the amount that can be donated to parties. Parties are required to disclose the amounts and sources of all donations.
The vast majority of European countries reviewed have no comprehensive regulation of lobbying and no system in place to systematically record contacts between lobbyists and policy-makers. Europe lags behind Canada and the United States in this regard. Only seven out of 19 European countries have laws or regulations specifically regulating lobbying activities, of which the UK is one (the others are Austria, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia), according to a 2019 EU analysis and a 2015 report by Transparency International. The latter report found that only one country (Slovenia) scored more than 50 per cent on their quality assessment, while only Austria has a mandatory code of conduct for lobbyists in place. It also found that “many of the lobbying related laws and regulations that exist in Europe are, to varying degrees, flawed or unfit for purpose”, and that there are “problems with weak implementation and lack of enforcement of existing rules”. However, it has also been argued that stricter lobbying laws (as in the US) can hurt transparency, if not improved.
The salaries of parliamentarians vary widely between countries, from £13,000 per year in India to £670,000 per year in Singapore. In 2016, the salary of British MPs was above the European average but well below that of several European countries, most notably Italy, Germany and Austria.