Why we must be ready to fight a Tory assault on our democracy
David R. Howell
There is nothing new about unelected members of the House of Lords serving as ministers in the cabinet of the government of the day. Gordon Brown, a Prime Minister who failed to win a General Election, was liberal in his use of the unelected, and unaccountable, to assist in governance.
Indeed, given the fluid nature of the British Constitution, you don’t actually have to be a member of either the House of Commons or Lords to play your part in directly running the country. Yet, the appointment of Zac Goldsmith to both the House of Lords and the Tory cabinet, despite having been ejected by his constituency in the recent election, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
If you needed to be reminded, the 2019 GE was all about respecting the will of the people. The desire to ‘get Brexit done’ and make good on a narrow, non-binding referendum result from several years ago, was the be all and end all of the campaign. About 43 percent of the population thought that this was a good thing, and voted for it.
Within one day of the new Tory government converging on Westminster, the people’s will was thoroughly respected, with strategic moves made towards the No Deal which ‘everyone’ clearly wanted when this whole thing started in 2016…
The people of Richmond, London, however, made it pretty clear that they did not want Zac Goldsmith to represent them. Over 50 percent of voters (53 percent to be specific, a total significantly higher than those to support the new government) in the constituency made it clear that their will was to see the back of Goldsmith from their politics.
In an era where so much is made of the importance of democracy, you might have expected that to be that. Not in the age of Brexit. No, in 2019, the will of some of the people will be respected, while the will of others will be largely ignored. Voters in Richmond must have been surprised to see that their local Environment and International Development Minister was back at work in the cabinet, only days after being ‘sacked’ by them.
Boris Johnson, having been given sweeping powers by the electorate (the same electorate which Boris’ father had earlier dismissed as a collection of illiterate idiots), took what he wanted and put it back in power. The ‘will of the people’ for some, Zac Goldsmith for others.
It is Goldsmith’s appointment, specifically, which brings me to cast an eye on the People’s Charter of 1838. William Lovett’s articles on the shaping of the political settlement for Britain have, in one shape or another, formed the basis upon which British democracy functions. All but annual parliamentary elections are recognisable elements of the framework in which our democracy operates. The ideas were sound, the principles strong, and for many in the, now, city of Newport, they were worth dying for in 1839. Yet Goldsmith’s appointment stands as an affront to core elements of that document.
One image to have been circulated following the appointment of Goldsmith, highlighted that he would not be drawing a wage for his contributions to cabinet. While Goldsmith is entitled to expenses, he is not a salaried member of parliament – and of course not, no one voted for him to be one.
Yet neither does he need a salary, being from a family of billionaires, and that is a problem. The fourth (sometimes fifth, depending on which version) point of the charter demanded the payment of parliamentary members. Many today cry anger at the wages drawn by politicians, yet it is a critical right. At the time of the charter, considering a path in parliament was a privilege. You needed money in the bank, because you were not going to get it from governing. The lack of payment meant that only those in positions of comfort could ever consider a path into politics. If you needed to work to feed yourself and your family, you were not going to be a politician in nineteenth-century Britain.
In twenty-first century Britain, Zac Goldsmith is a politician who doesn’t need a salary, indeed he doesn’t even need the support of a constituency. Goldsmith is an affront to the principles of British democracy and the notion of our parliamentary process. Few backing the Tories will care.
Neither will many who back the party care about efforts to push through the need for voter id at elections. Despite the weight of evidence being stacked against the need for voter id (with postal votes, favoured by a certain age and voting demographic, being far more vulnerable to fraud), it seems inevitable that it will be pushed through.
Now while such a shift is not exactly an attack on the principles of the secret ballot, enshrined in the Charter as its second point, it certainly looks to weaken it. There are a myriad of reasons why people might not have a photographic ID, cost being one of them, but it is certainly the case that a proportion of voters are likely to be practically disenfranchised by such a reform to the electoral process.
The secret ballot was argued for, so as to avoid intimidation and oversight, at a time when landowners could watch over the way in which their tenants might vote. Now the Tory State is essentially saying that participation in elections can only be secured, if the electorate are signed up to one form or another of state surveillance.
Electoral participation will be an exercise in adhering to a degree of monitoring from the powers that be and while that may not force hands towards certain tick boxes on the ballot, it may well force many away from even reaching the voting booth in the first place.
There is one element of the People’s Charter which the Tories look to try to make good on, and that would be the fifth point, equal constituencies. In principle, this would be a pretty good one to move forward with, yet, the political landscape of 2019 is a touch different from 1838.
In the first third of the nineteenth century, rotten and pocket boroughs remained popular (with those who benefitted from them) and the Great Reform Act only really started the process of stripping them away. Today, there is certainly an imbalance in the size of many constituencies, though few would argue that the electorate in smaller areas were all in the sway of a single employer or landowner (that they might all be in the sway of a single publisher is another matter).
Redrawing constituency boundaries makes sense, so long as those doing the redrawing are not intent of redrawing electoral areas to their own specific benefit – which has been generally inferred regarding the current Tory proposals in this matter.
The only way, I would argue, that a rebalancing of electoral wards could work, is with the introduction of proportional representation. To move forward with boundary changes, without such wider reform, would only serve to further weaken the will of the electorate to participate (though that might well be what the Tories want anyway).
Proportional representation was a theory in its infancy when the People’s Charter was first drawn up, but I have little doubt that it would have been eagerly pursued as part of the charter, had the document been drawn up some forty years later when the theory had begun to be applied more liberally in elections around the world.
As things stand, however, it would seem that those principles which underpin electoral democracy are under threat. The secret ballot and the importance of paid parliamentary positions, are being weakened, while the concept of equal constituencies are being abused.
While Wales has moved to extend the franchise to sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, might an unstoppable Tory government in Westminster look to overturn such reforms? There is certainly no chance that they would ever consider the adoption of such forward-thinking attitudes towards a strengthening of the democratic process across the rest of the UK.
And while it seems unlikely that the property qualification is ever likely to come back, you can’t help but think that the likes of Mogg would eagerly love to see a return to the golden days of the 1830 election, before all of this reform nonsense got in the way of things.
Make no mistake about it, we are not talking about the threat of a Tory assault on British democracy, they are doing it right now. The very same party that stood on a platform of ‘respecting the will of the people’, has commenced the long process of stripping back the powers that the people had willed for over the last 190 years.
Yet acceptance of such retrograde measures is not an inevitability. The Chartists showed how such tyranny can be challenged, and for the sake of democracy on this island, we must be prepared to challenge tyranny again.