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