Our democracy is seriously out of shape. One thing that can be said of Brexit is that it was a decision that was undertaken by the majority of the public who feel ‘left behind’ not just economically but politically as well. Our democratic system is marred by a steady decline in voter turnout and a growing distrust in politicians, exacerbated by events such as the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009. A lot has been made about how Brexit was a kick out against globalisation, and although this explanation holds water, it’s also overlooking the internal problems of our democracy. If Brexit is calling for a complete overhaul of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world, then it’s about time we did the same with regards to our own government’s relationship with its voters.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of democratic engagement in our system. Sure, the EU referendum saw a turnout of 72% and the Scottish independence referendum had an even higher one of 84%, but if we look to the general trend, voter turnout has been on a steady decline since the 1950’s (it has now seemingly stagnated to around the mid 60’s mark for the past 3 general elections). In local and European Elections the situation is even worse. 64% of voters turned out for the English Local Elections in 2015 , whilst a measly 35% did for the European elections in 2014, this of course was the election which UKIP came out on top with 27% of the vote. A far right, predominantly English nationalist party was now the main voice for Britain inside the European Union, working on a mandate from a small section of the public. This situation is totally unacceptable; political apathy has allowed UKIP to step into a position of power that I highly doubt they would have obtained if the turnout was higher.
Low turnout in elections is also bad for young people because we are perhaps the most apathetic when it comes voting, and this is actually hurting us when it comes to policy making decisions. The main political parties tailor their manifesto pledges to give greater benefits to older people who are more likely to turn out and vote rather than to young people who are more likely to stay at home. A good example of this would be the Tories ‘triple lock’ pledge in their 2015 manifesto which guaranteed the safety of pensions , whilst at the same time doing nothing about extortionate student fees , or the lack of affordable housing for many young people. Turnout is also lower in poorer constituencies than it is in richer ones , discontent and anger seemingly expresses itself as apathy because people don’t believe that our political system is capable of producing real change, so when they see an opportunity to make a difference , such as voting to leave the European Union, they take it.
One way to tackle this epidemic is through compulsory voting. This is an idea which is hardly ever floated in the mainstream debate, yet it would be a measure that would help to significantly boost the rigour of our democracy. Some may argue that compulsory voting may go against the very notion of democracy i.e. the right to decide whether you exercise your vote or not, but the price for the loss of this small bit of liberty is outweighed by the benefits of a democratic system that takes into account the preferences of a whole society, not just 50 or 60 percent of it. Voting should be seen as a civic duty, like jury service or paying your taxes. If governments demand that we contribute to their coffers through taxation then it’s only fair that governments can be expected to be held to account by all of the electorate on Election Day, not just 60% of them. It’s also a workable idea, modern nations like Australia have already adopted compulsory voting with a staggering 91% turnout in the previous federal elections. Having such high turnouts in Britain would do wonders for our democracy, ensuring that our governments have a strong mandates from the people and also taking in a wider range of preferences when making policy decisions.
Compulsory voting is not the only change which is needed. The United Kingdom needs an electoral system which is representative because our current first past the post system has long since failed us. It may have worked well in the immediate post war years with the dominance of the two party system between Labour and the conservatives , but the growth of alternative parties such as the Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP, and Greens, all of whom receive large amounts of votes in elections but never gets translated into seats, means that we need an electoral system that allows for the inclusion of more voices. A proportional representation system where parties are allocated a number of seats based on their percentage of the vote e.g. the Tories got 36% of the vote in 2015 but ended up with around 51% of the seats, meanwhile UKIP had 12% yet only 1 seat. A lot of people feel like their votes don’t carry any weight, and they don’t, at least not in our current system which tips the balance in favour of the 2 main parties. If we had a proportional system, all votes would carry equal weight and voters would feel empowered knowing that they were actually making a difference by participating in elections. A proportional system would also promote a more consensus based politics, with coalitions far more likely. Democracy is about hearing a wide range of opinion from across all of society, and what better way to embody this than with governments made up of coalitions of parties from across the political spectrum?
Of course many more changes are going to be necessary if we are to really transform the way our democracy operates but the two I’ve mentioned above give us a good starting point. If Brexit showed us one thing it’s that people are crying out for change, they feel underrepresented in increasingly globalised world. We need to learn from this and build a democracy that is inclusive, gives equal weight to everyone’s vote and forms governments which are far more reflective of the British public. Only then will we have a democracy we can all be proud of.