Not standing by – can civil society fix British democracy?

All of us whether charities, non-profits, unions, faith groups or donors can no longer afford to treat democratic reform as a minority pursuit.

Alex Jacobs
16 July 2019, 10.07am
Schoolchildren have been taking part in global school strikes against climate change in recent months
Gareth Fuller/PA Images

The Joffe Trust normally works on global corruption and tax abuse. But, in these extraordinary times we’ve been looking at whether we can help tackle the root causes of Brexit. Like many, we are worried about how our country is changing, and how that works out for different people.

Even the Economist says that our political system is broken. We’ve realised how central that system is to all the issues of social and international justice we care about. Could we afford to be a bystander?

Here’s what we’ve learned in recent months.

First, democratic reform is crucial.

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Sometimes, the government looks and feels a lot like an old boys’ club. In our area alone, it has fought tooth and nail against opening up UK tax havens. It recently shut down the criminal investigation to uncover who was responsible for bribery at Rolls Royce, despite the company having admitted its actions and paid £671m of fines. And it gave the biggest banks a role in overseeing their own regulators through the new Economic Crime Strategy Board.

When we looked into the democratic system behind these decisions, we were staggered by how out of date it is. The House of Lords is becoming even less representative, appointed on the basis ‘who you know’. Our two-party system is falling apart, with just 160,000 Conservative members currently choosing our next Prime Minister. Most people’s votes literally don’t matter under first-past-the-post.

The authoritative 2018 Democratic Audit found “seriously worrying adverse changes” to our political systems, limited by “legacy arrangements” that should have no place in a modern democracy. No wonder vested interests and donors have so much influence, and major decisions can have terrible consequences for so many people.

That’s why we believe that democratic reform is central to the fight for social, environmental, economic and international justice. It should be a unifying concern for civil society across the UK.

Second, democratic reform is complicated.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but has made it hard to know where to start. Reform involves so many connected issues about our culture of democracy, how interlocking institutions and systems operate, national identities, devolution, inclusion, the legal framework and many others.

Each area has its own web of history and concerns, along with active opponents to reform. There are no silver bullets.

There is also plenty of history among democratic reformers. The 1997-2010 Labour government saw huge constitutional changes and made huge progress. But this is seen to have broken an old settlement without creating a coherent replacement. As Anthony Barnett put it, “Does John Smith’s description of the UK as an elected dictatorship still hold for the way the British state is ruled after the Brexit referendum? It does.”

There have been very different experiences across the home nations, with Scotland arguably making the most progress. The unsuccessful 2011 referendum on electoral reform cast a long shadow. Reformers have not always agreed enough on realistic strategic goals.

Third, the response from civil society (for example, non-profits, charities, unions, faith groups, and their donors) is not yet strong enough.

Democratic reform has been a minority sport in UK civil society, left to specialist organisations like Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society and the Electoral Reform Society. The large charities and donors have not been actively involved. Perhaps they could take British democracy for granted. Or they weren’t invited in. Maybe, as the Sheila McKechnie Foundation put it, the Lobbying Act discouraged them, so that “people’s voices go missing from the political debate”.

But the specialist organisations are over-stretched. Some, like Make Votes Matter and a new Citizens Convention, are reaching towards major structural changes. Others, like the Democracy Club, the Fawcett Society and My Life My Say, are creating new ways of improving democratic engagement and representation. There is huge energy and innovation to build on. But I’m not sure any initiatives are yet organised and resourced to succeed at a national level.

Is it right to leave the fight for crucial reforms to them? Alongside strengthening existing initiatives, there are four urgent opportunities for civil society to do more:

a) Encouraging big membership organisations and donors across civil society to get involved, on the basis that democracy is a foundation for all forms of social, economic, environmental and international justice, and we all need to protect and invigorate it.

b) Encouraging the specialist organisations to get to know each other better and work together better. This could lead to more active oversight of the whole movement. After all, no one is going to do this on their own.

c) Campaigning with national reach to build up the necessary public pressure for reforming our formal political system, potentially in the run up to the next general election. Represent Us is working to “unbreak the American political system”. Could there be a UK equivalent?

d) Work on the bottleneck ‘English Question’ of English political representation and national identity that currently prevents a balanced devolution settlement across the UK.

I’m sure these priorities can be improved, and others added. But it’s also clear that the times call for an urgent response from civil society. As Brexit tests our constitution and society to breaking point, there is an opportunity to bring people together to reinvigorate our democracy and counter the forces of populism. We are looking forward to continuing the journey.

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