Labour’s plan to reform politics doesn’t go far enough – here’s what will really stop governments hoarding power
Jonathan Parker, Lecturer in Politics, University of Glasgow
In a major report for the Labour party, former prime minister Gordon Brown has proposed a number of reforms to address some of the UK’s glaring institutional problems. He recommends reforming the House of Lords, so that it is elected and far smaller than its current size, as well as major devolution across the UK. Yet evidence from political science suggests Labour leader Keir Starmer needs to go much further to bring about the real change in the power and standards of central government he claims to want.
The key scholar here is Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart, who divides democracies into two categories. Those characterised by the concentration of power in single-party governments are “majoritarian” and those built around power-sharing are “consensus” democracies.
The UK is a key example of a majoritarian system. It features a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, single-party cabinets, massive concentration of power in the national government and an uncodified constitution which is very easy to change. These elements are arguably at the root of many of the UK’s recent problems.
Most European nations – including Germany, Sweden and Belgium – slot into the consensus category. They use proportional representation for elections and have coalition cabinets. Most also generally feature lots of devolution to different regions of the state. They have codified constitutions which are difficult to amend and often powerful upper houses to check the executive.
Proportional representation is arguably the most important element here. Giving parties seats in proportion to their share of the vote generally leads to more parties being represented in parliaments. That, in turn, makes power-sharing arrangements between parties and full-blown coalition governments more common.
Brown’s report steps toward this in some respects. He proposes greater decentralisation, and more consultation with devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it makes no mention about proportional representation and the reformed upper house it suggests contains no extra powers to check governments.
The House of Commons – and the massively powerful governments it provides – would remain largely unchanged under Brown’s reforms. To really unlock the power of institutional change so that it ensures the government delivers for the British public, Labour needs a much bolder embrace of consensus democracy.
A broken system
The British experience has clearly displayed the pitfalls of majoritarianism compared to a consensus system, especially since 2016. Abuses of power of the kind seen under Conservative governments since 2019 are made much easier by majoritarianism, because there are so few checks and balances imposed on government ministers.
Had the Conservatives been in a coalition government with another party, Boris Johnson would arguably have found it far harder to get away with his lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. Rishi Sunak would have faced significant opposition to his politically expedient but otherwise questionable decision to appoint Suella Braverman as home secretary mere days after she was forced to resign from the very same post for failing to comply with ministerial rules.
Nor would Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget have been possible under a coalition government. Such a drastic policy change simply couldn’t be made midterm with no consultation. Coalition governments are typically sources of stability. Parties tend to stick to agreements made at the start of the term and play by the rules.
Party leadership changes have significantly less impact on government policy here. Evidence shows that coalitions are at least no worse performers on economic policy than single-party governments. They are, however, much less prone to destabilising policy shifts.
Aside from coalition governments, checks on ministerial abuses and incompetence could be strengthened with a codified constitution and a powerful upper house. Introducing proportional representation would allow more politicians from other parties to enter parliament, likely raising the calibre of MPs because party loyalty alone could no longer be relied upon to keep an MP in their job if they were under-performing. Such a system could also be expected to increase the number of women and minorities in parliament.
Proportional voting would make space for people unwilling to work through the two main parties to win a seat. Safe seats would become a thing of the past. All this would bring policymaking closer to voter preferences.
Such reforms would also reduce polarisation, which has grown significantly in the UK in recent years. The UK has a very confrontational political climate because of the winner-takes-all nature of its institutions. Stronger incentives for parties to cooperate with each other would be extremely useful in changing this.
Majoritarian systems incentivise focusing on “wedge” issues which divide voters, and appealing only to specific groups of loyal or swing voters. In a consensus system, parties must engage in more long-term national planning.
Policy made under a consensus system is more likely to take into account diverse parts of the country, and last much longer. Consensus democracies almost always have much lower levels of inequality than majoritarian systems like the UK or US.
A much bolder offering from Labour – at the moment likely to form the next government – would have multiple benefits. Aside from improvements to governance, there are gains to be had in terms of the quality of democracy, and potentially strategic advantages for Labour too. But the party would need to embrace this opportunity in a way it failed to do last time it was in government.
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