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About Stuart Wilks-Heeg

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit.

Articles by Stuart Wilks-Heeg

This week’s front page editor

Clare Sambrook

Clare Sambrook, investigative journalist, co-edits Shine a Light.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Whatever the result, the AV referendum won't end the struggle for electoral reform

Today's referendum on AV is the culmination of a long campaign for change. Yet, AV is not a form of proportional representation and is not a system which reformers have previously called for. Whatever the referendum result, it will not end the campaign for electoral reform in the UK

A plea to Peers: a last chance to reconsider radical changes to UK parliamentary boundaries

This may be the last opportunity to scrutinise a bill that proposes fundamentally altering the workings of our democracy by re-drawing the boundaries of UK constituencies and reducing the number of Members of Parliament.

The health of UK democracy is compromised by its narrow funding base

An in-depth summary of party funding shows that the top three parties rely on attracting just ten or eleven large donations a year between them from a small group of rich people, plus a few companies and large trade unions. This narrow funding base raises issues of fairness. It also helps explain why reforming party funding in the UK has proved so problematic.

Party funding: a pathway to reform

An elite-level ‘fix’ to the question of party funding reform in the UK offers no prospect of tackling popular discontent with politics. Reform must be rooted in clear democratic principles.

Is ‘reduce and equalise’ a solution in search of a problem?

The Coalition's proposals to reshape the UK's electoral geography by reducing the number of MPs and equalising the size of constituencies, may inflict more pain than gain, as a report by the British Academy shows.

Reduce and equalise? Why electoral geography matters

The coalition's plans to reduce the number of constituencies in the UK to 600 and reduce their size poses a number of difficulties and will prove controversial.

Parliament, heal thyself

The party leaders had proclaimed it as a wake-up call. They were united in their calls for urgent and far-reaching reforms. Yet, until yesterday, the only reforms achieved in the wake of the MPs expenses crisis were those establishing new rules and regulations concerning MPs expenses.

The state of a politically ambivalent nation

The latest poll on public attitudes to UK democracy shows a profound hunger for change, but no growth in support for particular reforms.

Writing the constitution: An open letter to Sir Gus O'Donnell

In his speech on Tuesday, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to “consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document”, clearly ignorant of the fact such a document already exists. Here, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of Democratic Audit, points Sir Gus in the right direction.

OK’s End of Year Quiz

As is traditional at Yuletide, readers of OurKingdom may like to participate in this short and simple ‘end of the year’ constitutional reform quiz.

Quangos – still undemocratic after all

An important new report on Quangos in the UK finds that they still lack basic transparency and accountability

The Unspoken Constitution 2.0

A satirical document spoofing the UK's antiquated constitution is now open to online editing and additions.

The unspoken constitution

The Unspoken Constitution

Today, to mark the return of MPs and Peers to Parliament, Democratic Audit have published a satirical pamphlet that sets out to describe how our unspoken constitution would look if actually put to paper. Below, Stuart Weir presents the Preamble, and Stuart Wilks-Heeg explains both the historical and the contemporary context of the project: 

Earlier this year Graham Allen MP made some very good jokes in a speech, suggesting how an honest constitution would describe the way we are governed. He inspired me to a brainwave: why not write an ‘Unspoken Constitution', as if from our political masters, as a satire on our inefficient and undemocratic governing traditions and rules?

Fortunately I was able to draw on the knowledge and ideas of friends at Democratic Audit - openDemocracy's Anthony Barnett among them - to hone down the weaknesses and contradictions of our constitutional arrangements to their paradoxical bones. As I wrote, I became more and more astonished at the arrogant complacency and ignorance not only of our rulers but of the whole political class - and yes, I do mean civil servants, the media, most academics as well as leading politicians- over what is in essence a rotten caricature of democracy.

The paradoxical bones? I think Article 3 of the spoof constitution best illustrates what I mean:

Government, like every subject, shall be free to do whatever is not unlawful. The government shall decide what is unlawful.

You can read the whole document, The Unspoken Constitution, here at OurKingdom, or view our site at Democratic Audit, but here as a taster, is the Preamble...

The middle-aged vanguard of democratic reform

Proponents of constitutional reform will be cheered further by the headline results from the latest opinion poll. The findings provide a number of interesting insights to inform OurKingdom's discussion on Real Change and possible strategies for democratic reform post-expenses. As with other recent surveys, YouGov's poll for the Fabian Society, released today, has been reported as offering further evidence of the public's desire for change. The results also suggest that among voters in Scotland, the part of the UK which has experienced the most far-reaching constitutional change as a result of devolution in the late 1990s, there is a particularly strong appetite for reform of the Westminster system.

Based on an on-line survey of 2000 adults from 1-3 July 2009, the polling produced four key findings which reformers will want to highlight. First, only 46 per cent of UK voters say they are satisfied with ‘the way democracy works in the UK' (if this sounds surprisingly high, it is worth noting that satisfaction levels with UK democracy were 30 percentage points higher that this in the late 1990s). Second, a majority of those polled do appear to feel that the current crisis represents a significant opportunity for reform: 54 per cent agreed with the statement that ‘this is a once-in-a-generation chance for a major overhaul to improve our democracy'.

Third, the poll suggests a similar majority in favour of citizens, rather than politicians, being at the vanguard of reform: 52 per cent say they would prefer reform proposals emerge from a citizens' convention, compared to just 19 per cent in favour of leaving the task to MPs. Fourth, there are some strong indicators of the types of reforms which the public would be most likely to favour, with at least half of the respondents prioritising both fixed parliamentary terms and a more proportional voting system from among a menu of reform options.

Localism: the new politics of old

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a remarkable pamphlet to coincide with its annual conference, taking place in Harrogate this week. The glossy, professionally-designed eleven page document is what we've come to expect from local government these days. It is the text which is surprising. The pamphlet is written with a passion, immediacy and radicalism unheard of in local government circles since the days of Red Ken's GLC, David Blunkett's Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire and Derek ‘Deggsy' Hatton's Militant resistance in Liverpool. Even the title of the pamphlet - ‘Who's in Charge? A Manifesto for a New Politics' - is reminiscent of the language associated with the radical localism of the New Urban Left in the early 1980s. Much of the text could have been borrowed, with minor modifications, from David Blunkett and Keith Jackson's (1987) book: ‘Democracy in Crisis: The Town Halls Respond'.

As such, established local government commentators will recognise that there is nothing particularly new in the demands made in the LGA's manifesto. It advocates rolling back the unelected Quango state; radical decentralisation to bring decision-making down to the lowest possible level; making local NHS bodies accountable to the electorate; a genuine power of general competence for local government, and real fiscal autonomy, including returning to councils the power to set local business rates.

Do the public really want to change ‘the system’?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit

A poll commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and reported in today’s Guardian and by Stuart Weir indicates that 75 per cent of those questioned believe either that the UK’s system of government could be ‘improved a great deal’ or that it could be improved ‘quite a lot’. A mere 3 per cent suggest that the system works well and could not be improved at all. The poll also suggests a clear majority – over 60 per cent - would be in favour of a more proportional electoral system.

The question asking survey respondents to assess the current system for governing Britain has been asked in an identical form in 15 surveys since 1973 and on a regular basis since 1991.  The ‘net’ score of -50 per cent in 2009 for faith in the system (calculated as the percentage largely in favour of leaving the system alone minus the percentage suggesting significant reforms are required) is the second lowest ever recorded (narrowly beaten only by the score of -53 per cent in 1995). The 42 per cent proportion responding that the system needs a great deal of improvement is the highest ever.

The results for 2009 are hardly surprising, other than for the fact that there are 3 per cent who somehow continue to believe that the system ‘works extremely well and could not be improved’. Likewise, nobody doubts that support for major constitutional and electoral reforms has received an enormous boost from the revelations surrounding MPs expenses. But everyone knows that these are exceptional times politically. To what extent do poll results like this reflect a deep-seated desire for system reforms?

The silence of 30 million voters

As a recent Democratic Audit report underlined, European elections are interpreted mostly for the messages they send to national governments, not as mandates for the future direction of the EU. The insistence of democratic theorists that this is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs will not cause voters to lose any sleep, however many MEPs turn out to have been punished for the misdemeanours of MPs. But the contradictions run deeper still when MPs seek to interpret the messages they have been sent via elections to a different parliament, using a different electoral system. Perhaps most of all, though, we need to remind ourselves that, for every elector who has spoken, there are two who have not. And, in 2009, it may well have been the silent voters who mattered most.

To be fair, it is difficult to make out the silence of 29 million unused ballot papers amid all the political noise. Imagine them stacked up, each one printed with a unique number which would have linked them to a single voter on the electoral register - voters who never arrived at the polling station.  Then there is the silence emanating from the eligible, but unregistered, voters. We don't even know how many of them there are - possibly another 3 million, perhaps more. Even the psephologist with the well trained ear will struggle to hear them, but they are unmistakably there. The silence of these abstentions should be deafening.

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