Earlier this week the Speaker’s Report on Digital Democracy was published. The report from a group of MPs led by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, was prompted by falling voter turnout and recognition that Parliament and MPs are held largely in contempt by the public. This threatens parliamentary democracy and something needs to be done if we are not to lose our hard won democratic rights. The recommendations in the report are, however, an inadequate response.
This is not to say that the report does not contain some sensible proposals. Parliament’s procedures and customs are more suited to a public school or Oxbridge debating society than to a modern elected chamber. Such arcane practices as putting on a top hat to attract the speaker’s attention and the bear fight that is Prime Minister’s Question Time may provide a comfort blanket for the many MPs who imbibed their politics in these arenas, but they don’t belong in a modern elected chamber. Certainly, MPs should, as the report recommends, be able to vote electronically – provided they have bothered to attend the preceding debate and are present in the chamber at the time. Being herded like sheep through lobbies by the oh so appropriately named ‘whips’ belongs to the nineteenth century, not the twenty first. Of course, as the report recommends, Parliament should be more transparent to the public. Ordinary voters in parliamentary (and local government) elections should, as the report recommends, of course be provided with an electronic voting facility – but only if the widespread abuse currently attaching to postal voting is first eliminated and steps are taken to ensure such practices are not take up with e-voting. All these reforms are all quite possible, but not when political parties are funded by rich individuals and unaccountable businesses and when the regulator is the present rather feeble Electoral Commission. But, even in their entirety, they are not enough.
There are several reasons why Parliament and MPs are held in contempt by a large proportion of the public: –
a. The first past the post voting system is unfit for purpose. Most voters cannot cast a meaningful vote, i.e. one that will make a difference. The rejection by referendum of one inadequate alternative does not make first past the post acceptable.
b. MPs are not representative of the people they are supposed to represent. Their earnings are a significant multiple of voters’ average earnings; their pension entitlement is much better than that of the average voter; and many of them have second jobs and well paid sinecures. Furthermore, most MPs are either drawn from the upper middle class, with professional qualifications or business backgrounds and Oxbridge educations, or they are upwardly mobile careerists from local government.
c. the MPs’ expenses scandal. The public was sickened by the ‘we were only following the rules’ defences put forward by so many greedy MPs caught with their hands in the public till.
We must be on guard against attempts to undermine parliamentary democracy. Certainly the current system leaves plenty of scope for improvement, and these improvements will be supported by communists. But the siren calls for more power to be given to the establishment – judges, political appointees, spooks and the ubiquitous “Crown” – must be resisted. Such democratic rights as we have secured by struggle must not be thrown away. Communists recognise, however, that parliamentary democracy, under which we have a choice every few years to choose between two parties with similar policies, and perhaps a string of smaller parties with little hope of forming a government, is an inadequate expression of democracy – rule by the people. We need democracy throughout our society: in our local government, where adequate funding and a return to the Committee System is a prerequisite; in the workplace, where electronic voting for strike ballots would help level the playing field between unions and employers; and we certainly need to oppose the Tory proposal, if elected, to count abstentions in strike ballots as votes against striking. Most significantly, however, as communists we have a vision for a real, participative democracy in which ordinary working people discuss and debate and then take decisions without being bullied or misled by the rich and powerful and their servants.