Yesterday, Parliament voted to approve holding an early election on 8th June. Free and fair elections are essential for a healthy and functional democracy, but alone they are not enough. Democracy should be more than a mark on a piece of paper every five years (or in this case two). So how healthy is our democracy in other areas?
Accountability and transparency
Accountability and transparency are two fundamental principles of democracy. Both Parliament and the public need to be able to scrutinise the actions of the government, to ensure they are acting in the best interests of the country. We also need to be able to measure governments against their promises and commitments. We need know what the government’s plans are and be free to criticise them openly.
So far under Theresa May’s leadership we have seen a worrying trend towards shutting down criticism rather than responding to it. She has consistently framed scrutiny of the government’s position on Brexit as attempts to sabotage it. She called the snap election on the basis that “there should be unity here in Westminster”, but this sounds more reminiscent of a one party state than a thriving multi-party democracy.
When it comes to transparency, May has been keeping her cards close to her chest, only releasing a white paper after MPs had voted for article 50. In her 12-point plan speech, May warned that anyone seeking more information on the negotiating position “will not be acting in the national interest.”
There are some huge decisions to be made during the Brexit process and questions that can’t be answered by binary vote choices made in the referendum and election. It is only right that our elected MPs from all parties and the people, however they voted, are able to voice their concerns about the government’s approach. The new Prime Minister must welcome, not shy away from, scrutiny and accountability.
Balance of power
Democracies can fall when the balance of power tips too far in favour of the executive. Most countries have constitutions which clearly define the role of each branch of government, and place checks and balances to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. But worryingly the UK has no written constitution to serve this purpose.
According to the UK’s unwritten constitution the Prime Minister and her ministers have special powers known as royal prerogative powers. They can exercise these powers without consulting Parliament at all. They include things like the power to go to war, to grant honours and crucially the power to make and break treaties. However, these powers are poorly defined and no one really knows where the limits lie.
This makes it easy for the government to exceed them without anyone noticing. May tried to do this when triggering article 50, and was only stopped by a public court case. She also intends to conduct Brexit negotiations using this power, with little input for Parliament. If May increases her majority she may be further emboldened to act independently and treat Parliament as a rubber stamp on the government’s wishes. The election should serve to empower newly elected MPs to act on behalf of their constituents, not give the government yet more power.
One reason to call an election is to give the government legitimacy to speak for the country and gain a mandate for their plans for the UK. But can anyone claim to have the support of the country when our electoral system is so disproportionate?
In 2015 the conservatives won a majority of the seats in Parliament with just over a third of the popular vote. No party has won more than 50% of the vote since 1931, and given the UK political system’s transition away from a two party democracy it looks unlikely that this will ever be achieved again. Can anyone really claim to speak for the entire country when more than half of voters voted against them? We need a fairer electoral system that reflects how people really voted.
Over the next 50 days each party will now put forward their vision for their country and voters will be able to make a decision about who they want to vote for. But whoever forms a government in June must remember that democracy is a process not an event. It does not end when polls close.
There should be opportunities for public engagement throughout the next five years to ensure that their actions really do reflect the will of the people. They must be open, transparent, accountable and welcome scrutiny. They must involve Parliament in every step of the Brexit process and not seek to hoard power for themselves. And they must commit to overhauling the way we elect people to represent us. Democracy is more than elections, and we must not forget this.