When people criticised the democratic deficit inherent in the EU’s structure, many remainers responded that Britain was hardly an example of unvarnished democracy itself.
They were correct about this, although wrong about the implications. First, having two layers of flawed democratic government is worse than having one. Second, the UK has a much better claim to represent a political ‘people’ than the EU, which is a desirable quality in a democracy. And third, even if the UK were less democratic than the EU, the prospects for Britons to reform it are much better.
Boris Johnson’s government is certainly interested in leaving the EU, fulfilling the promise made by politicians to voters when the referendum was held in 2016 (and ignored by anti-democrats who backed a second referendum as a means of cancelling the first). But it seems little interested in reforming government to make it more responsive to voters.
Paranoiacs have squealed about a section of the Conservative election manifesto which talked about setting up a commission to examine the constitution, but the setting up of a review body does not suggest the issue is a priority for the government. As the lawyer and pundit David Allen Green wrote in Prospect:
This new administration is certainly capable of seeking to rig the constitution in its favour. But on the face of the Queen’s Speech, serious constitutional shenanigans are not an immediate danger and there are so many other things ministers need to use their majority for.
Johnson will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (which nobody much rates anyway), probably introduce voter ID requirements, and at a stretch tinker with the House of Lords, but nothing substantial is likely.
This leaves any hope of democratic strengthening in the hands of Labour, which is about to undergo the convulsions of another leadership election. If the Corbynite membership remains as before it seems likely a successor to Jez will be chosen, rather than somebody more Blairite.
Some independent campaigners have decided to weigh in on the contest. Femi Oluwole, a remain campaigner, announced on Twitter this week that he’d be joining Labour to vote in the leadership election, with the aim of uniting the left and preventing Boris Johnson from being in government for the next decade.
“[The] Tory manifesto says they’re keeping first-past-the-post, so while I would have joined the Greens, that’s only an option after Labour win 2024 on a [proportional representation] manifesto,” he said. He added that Labour needs to “include electoral reform in its manifesto so Lib Dem and Green voters know that a Labour vote in 2024 is a route to real power in 2029” and become “ a broad church, a civil ecosystem representing the balance of lefty views, and have a leader who reflects that balance”.
However, it’s hard to believe that a Corbynite Labour government with a decent majority would have electoral reform at the top of its agenda. The Corbynites have hardly been consensual in their entrenchment within Labour, and passing powers to voters through voting reform and devolution does not seem part of their natural playbook either.
In practice the most likely route to electoral reform seems to be a minority Labour government relying on smaller parties for votes. It was this kind of arrangement which resulted in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, with the Lib Dems extracting it as a concession from the Tories.
This means for voting reform the most desirable scenario is a Labour government strong enough to form a minority government, but weak enough that it lacks a majority. It must be electable without crowding out the smaller parties.