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.
Wealth and influence
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).