Our outdated political system is to blame for what's happening in Parliament
If you’re struggling to keep up with our country’s politics at the moment, I don’t blame you.
First came Boris Johnson’s plans to prorogue Parliament with a five-week break, the longest shutdown since 1945. This week, however, the democratic disorder seems to have gone into overdrive.
Knowing they have little time to pass legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit, MPs took control of the Order Paper, which decides what order of business is discussed in Wesminster Hall every day. This meant they had time to debate and vote on the Brexit delay Bill, a piece of legislation which demands that the prime minster ask the EU for a four-month extension to Article 50, if by the end of October MPs have not explicitly backed a deal or supported no-deal.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a snap general election in an attempt to stump the delay, but was defeated in the Commons.
For some, these debates are fascinating but for many they are complex and confusing. However, they should point to the real problem that underlies this debate: our outdated political set-up.
Whereas most democracies have a written (or codified) constitution – a single document that sets out the established rules and principles of how our institutions work, and where different powers lie – the UK has no single written constitution.
Instead we operate under a set of obscure procedural rules, conventions and norms that, for the most part, MPs abide by – but they come across as little more than a political gentleman’s agreement. Today, that agreement is under attack by Johnson’s plans to force through a no-deal Brexit, and in the process, bypassing Parliament and preventing MPs from holding him to account.
The current constitutional crisis is just part of the wider picture: a political system that is not fit for purpose.
Two hundred years since the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester saw people die for the right to vote, the majority of our lawmakers remain unelected, thanks to the bloated and unaccountable House of Lords.
It is a chamber that is home to nearly 800 members that nobody voted for, 92 of whom are there on a hereditary basis – with a lifetime ticket to make our laws for no reason beyond their ancestry.
The outcome of our politics, the laws that we make and the very people who get to decide on them are all dictated by the system we have – and as it’s become clear, a major cause of our current predicament.
Our voting system too is in dire need of reform. Westminster’s ‘first-past-the-post’ elections see millions of votes wasted at every polling day. Because only one person wins in each of the 650 seats – and all other votes are ignored – millions of people across the country go without real representation in Parliament.
Too often political reform has been seen as a distraction from other political issues. As we’re now seeing, the rules of the game have an absolutely pivotal impact on the policies that affect us all. There are just better ways of doing politics.
We’ve recently seen a rise in interest in Citizens’ Assemblies – forums that bring together a representative group of citizens to engage in open, respectful and informed discussion and debate, over complex issues beyond the adversarial politics we see in Westminster. They then come to conclusions.
Ideas like this could help bring people together to tackle the problems we see today and help us with the concrete plans we need for long-term reform.
This current political crisis shows why our system is no longer fit for purpose. The outcome of our politics, the laws that we make and the very people who get to decide on them are all dictated by the system we have – and as it’s become clear, a major cause of our current predicament.
The political culture at Westminster can be absolutely toxic. We’re all tired of the yah boo, binary mentality that presents people working together as a betrayal and talks of political difference as somehow traitorous.
The mantra of ‘we won, you lost’ belongs on the football pitch, not our democratic institutions. To move on means not just toning-down our divisive political rhetoric, but changing how we act, too. That must include overhauling the Commons’ winner-takes-all voting system, and the unelected Lords.
The more fairly-elected governments of Wales and Scotland are used to working across parties to find solutions, and increasingly, involving citizens directly in political decision-making.
Westminster is lagging behind.
This is a pivotal time in our country’s history. It’s easy to point the finger at politicians for the mess we’re in, but look closer and you’ll see it is our whole political system that is to blame. It’s no surprise that only four per cent of people feel able to influence decisions in Parliament; according to polling for the Electoral Reform Society, they are locked out.
It’s about time all sides of this debate were heard.
We can see the cause of the problems, now let’s fight for reform to fix them.
One solution: a Citizens’ Assembly on our constitution to help find consensus on a way forward and to make recommendations to prevent governments going rogue in future.
Because we’re not simply ‘defending’ our flawed democracy as it currently is, but demanding a better one.
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