Brexiteers’ rhetoric regularly presents the European Union as the bureaucratic, illegitimate, and undemocratic beast, seeking to clip the wings of Britain, the ideal democratic oasis.
However, Brexiteers should look in the mirror. Although the EU is undeniably bureaucratic, and Britain does have an impressive legacy of parliamentary government, the UK’s governing arrangements are not as democratic as they may seem.
Leaving out the unelected House of Lords, there are numerous institutions at Westminster that are significantly undemocratic. In a 2011 study by the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin, Britain came 26th out of 30 countries for its democracy, beating only France, Poland, South Africa and Costa Rica.
But this is not simply a ‘Remoaner’ vindication of the European Union’s many flaws, nor news to many of the ‘Westminster Bubble’, but a reminder that in the UK we are not quite as principled as Brexiteers might have the electorate believe.
The most well-known undemocratic institution in UK politics is the electoral system, thanks in part to a referendum in 2011.
In general elections, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is used, a non-proportional method that relies on constituency ‘seats’ rather than number of votes to produce a government. This can often lead to very undemocratic outcomes.
In the 2015 general election, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) secured 12.6% of the votes. However, due to FPTP, UKIP gained just one seat. Or, to put it plainly, UKIP’s 12.6% share of the vote secured 0.15% of the seats in the Commons.
Since FPTP relies on constituencies being won by a simple majority, where the winner only has to get one vote more than the next candidate, some votes in the UK are worth ‘more’ than others. By relying on simple majorities in constituencies, it is not how many votes, but where the votes come from that matters.
Under FPTP, a few votes in one constituency are worth more than one hundred in every constituency. This makes it difficult for small parties with support spread throughout the country, making it difficult for them to gain representation.
So, whilst in the 2015 election the Conservatives required on average 34,242 votes to win a seat, UKIP gained 3,881,099 votes and gained just one seat. This was because the Conservatives hold many safe seats where their support is concentrated, whilst UKIP do not. Put simply, the Conservatives needed just 0.11% of the vote to win a seat whilst UKIP essentially needed 12.6%.
This, clearly, is neither fair nor democratic.
The FPTP system artificially produces a parliament in which there are two main parties, with a smattering of smaller ones. The reality is that on votes alone, both main parties have less sway over the electorate.
This has much wider consequences. Under our current electoral system, the ruling party of the day often has less than a third of the electorate’s support.
In the 2017 general election, May’s Conservatives failed to gain a majority of seats. In order to claim the democratic legitimacy to rule, the Conservatives made an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to ensure that they had a majority of seats in the Commons.
Yet, even with the Conservatives and DUP votes combined, they still fall short of having an absolute majority from the electorate. More precisely, the current UK government has 29.73% of the entire electorate’s backing, including those who chose to spoil their ballot or not vote. As such, it is odd that a government can claim democratic legitimacy when nearly three quarters of the country did not vote for that government.
FPTP is undemocratic as it produces a government that is unrepresentative of the electorate’s votes and excludes minority views, artificially channelling the two main parties.
A more democratic and representative electoral system would be one of the several forms of proportional representation, which translates the number of votes into a similar number of seats.
Party leaders are elected. They can also be unelected, and they can be removed by their own parliamentary party (PLP). It may then come as a surprise that party leaders are, in fact, surprisingly undemocratic.
However, the late Anthony King, former Millennium Professor of British Government at the University of Essex, was profoundly aware of this paradox. In ‘Who Governs Britain?’, King set out the reality that whilst leaders are elected by their party members, the number of the members is rapidly shrinking. This is thereby making the electorate choose between two leaders, both of whom have been selected only by an absolute minority of voters.
For example, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader by just over 251,000 party members. Yet, when the electorate went to the polls in 2017, some 12,900,000 voted for Labour. So, whilst nearly 13 million voted for the Labour party, just 1.95% of those individuals actually ever chose Corbyn as leader.
In essence, due to falling numbers of party members, party leaders are becoming increasingly undemocratic and lacking a popular mandate from that party’s voters as a whole.
More worryingly, King argued that the views of party members and the views of the electorate can be wildly different.
Whilst many of the Labour party members who voted for Corbyn in 2015 were in their 60s and young people, the vast majority of Labour voters in 2017 fitted neither of these categories. However, they were largely offered the choice of the Conservatives or voting for Labour led by a man they had not chosen.
This is clear when looking at the case of Corbyn within Westminster.
After Corbyn’s limited role in promoting ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ in 2016, the Labour parliamentary party decided to remove him as leader, seeing the referendum as a test that he had failed. Between 24th and 27th June, 23 shadow ministers resigned alongside 7 parliamentary private secretaries. On 28th June 2016, Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence in the Commons, with 172 of his Labour MPs voting against him to just 40 with him.
However, Corbyn remained as leader following a leadership contest in September in which he gained a majority of 61.8% of the party members. This group clearly have different views on where Labour should be heading compared to ordinary voters who elected their MPs and who in turn voted ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn.
So, the Labour Party has demonstrated that the vast majority who vote for their party neither like their leader nor have any great say in it, suggesting that party leaders are becoming increasingly undemocratic as party membership falls. As well as this, party leaders are surprisingly hard to get rid of when elected, as shown by the Labour PLP’s vote of no confidence being overruled.
The Civil Service
An element of the UK’s political workings that is often less talked about, but deeply undemocratic, is the civil service.
This civil service is the army of bureaucrats working for ministers and MPs, forming legislation, generating policy ideas and carrying out the bulk of parliamentary work. However, unlike MPs, civil servants, although politically neutral, are unelected and largely unaccountable to the electorate for any policy they produce.
Yet, more worryingly is the distinct form of civil servant, often referred to in Westminster as Special Advisors (SpAds).
These are individuals recruited by the government through ministerial patronage, outside of the usual civil service stream. More specifically, SpAds are nakedly partisan unlike the bulk of the usual service, and yet like them, are still largely unaccountable.
SpAds generally have significant power and influence, shaping policy and even changing the direction of government, all while the ‘ordinary man’ on the street has little or no idea who they are. David Cameron had over 100 SpAds, most of whom were influential and yet unknown.
A more recent example is that of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s former Joint-Chiefs of Staff.
These two SpAds essentially controlled much of the thought and direction at the top of the Conservative Party, with both Timothy and Hill clashing against elected ministers such as Philip Hammond. It was in fact these two that largely formulated May’s manifesto for the 2017 general election, which was then put to the electorate with no mention of themselves.
They essentially were as influential as ministers, if not more, but were entirely unelected, and largely unknown, a position that is undeniably undemocratic.
It was only May’s loss of her majority and their subsequent firing that brought them into the public eye beyond the politicians, journalists and those who follow Westminster very closely. A week after their demise, the Daily Telegraph published an article entitled: “Who are Nick Timothy, and Fiona Hill […]?”
The fact that SpAds have increasingly created a threatening environment for elected politicians as well as civil servants only emphasises how undemocratic their position is.
Alsadair Palmer of the Telegraph was not wrong in writing in November 2015 an article entitled ‘David Cameron’s vast army of unelected spies and SpAds threatens British Democracy’.
The civil service, and SpAds in particular, are clearly an element in the UK political system that fails to be democratic, with shadowy civil servants pulling the strings behind closed doors.
Parliamentary whips are vital to maintaining government unity, but they are also undemocratic in that they use threats and promises to make MPs vote in their party’s best interests, rather than in the interests of their constituents.
Whips offer can offer rewards in the form of opportunities, but more often use threats such as a bar from ministerial work or even suspension from the party if an MP does not vote as the leader would like. Even worse, whips are rumoured to have a ‘black book’ in which they record potential scandals for MPs such as claims of sexual harassment. These scandals can then be used to blackmail an MP into voting the ‘right’ way.
Making an MP choose between serving their constituents and their conscience or serving their Chief Whip is obviously undemocratic, regardless of how common an occurrence it is. When constituents vote for their MP, they do not do so expecting that MP to be blackmailed to vote against their interests.
Ultimately, the very principle of using threats to pass legislation is blatantly undemocratic.
Brexiteers have argued that when the UK officially leaves the EU, we will regain our sovereignty and be restored, free of the undemocratic ideals and practices used on the continent.
This article has revealed that this image is a little rose-tinted.
There is no denying that Britain is a great democracy, famed for its long history of parliamentary rule, and aspired to by less democratic nations. However, there is clearly still work to be done and there are still institutions within Westminster that are nakedly undemocratic.
Whether it is one person’s vote being worth less than another’s, Prime Minister’s being elected when most of their party’s voters do not support them, or indeed MPs being overruled by the unelected or threatened by whips, Britain is not fully democratic.
Clearly, Britain is not as democratic as Brexiteers might have you believe.