Westminster Democracy: Is British Politics Broken?

Joshua Grier – Year 13 Student & Deputy Editor, Politics in Review

Editor’s NotePolitics in Review would like to remind its readers that this is an independent journal, published entirely by politics students. Therefore, the opinions expressed in this journal are the opinions of the contributors and not the opinions of the school. GG

In recent years, British politics has come under heavy scrutiny leading to increasing calls for reform. Some have even gone as far as to mistakenly label the most famous democratic system in the world as broken.

Primarily, some believe our electoral system is ineffective. The ‘First Past the Post’ system used in general and local elections means a party’s overall percentage of the vote doesn’t directly correlate to the number of seats awarded. Whilst historically the ‘FPTP System’ regularly produced a definitive result, wherein the country was ruled effectively, both the 2010 and 2017 elections resulted in hung parliaments. We endured a coalition for five years, a miserable majority of only six seats for two years and a minority Government until December 2019. These represent a significant failure in our political system, making the legislative process considerably more challenging. However, we must appreciate that any alternative system would be even less effective at preventing hung parliaments and as Duverger’s Law explains, plurality rule election systems such as the FPTP favour the two party system that we have in Britain.

Moreover, the FPTP system has been reliable previously, so it would be unjust to hold it solely accountable for our contemporary problems. Interestingly, the electorate could be responsible instead. Turnout for recent elections suggest a significant level of public disengagement with politics, with fewer than 70% of eligible voters casting a vote in every general election since 2001. This passive and disillusioned approach by the public is arguably well founded. For example, the over powerful nature of the Blair regime with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the evasion of responsibility for the 2008 Financial Crash, presented an unaccountable image to the public. Furthermore, the surge of “sleaze” extended the electorate’s animosity to our increasingly decadent political system and those who operate within it; for example, the ‘cash for honours’ scandal, MP’s abuse of expenses and the Labour back pedal on their call for a removal of tobacco advertisement in Formula 1 after a £1,000,000 donation from Bernie Ecclestone. Subsequently, party manifestos are frequently riddled with lies and fake promises (the Liberal Democrats’ sudden backing for a rise in tuition fees, and Boris Johnson who must now go to court for “Bus Lies”) serving to further ingrain mistrust in our political system. However, the establishment of the Brexit party, with its indisputable dominance in the MEP election, and the return of the Pinstripe Populist Nigel Farage, who The Economist magazine hailed as the “champion of the people’s revolution” means that maybe the aforementioned passive approach by the public will end with the appearance of a political figure who is believed to be an arbiter of the people’s interest.

Today, the chronic issue at the heart of our political system is unequivocally the relationship between and within parties, massively exacerbated by Brexit. The Tories have always had fundamental conflict fracturing the party into Eurosceptics and Europhiles. Every Tory PM since Margaret Thatcher has seen the fall of their premiership due to party division on the EU. This widening division means, even with a majority in parliament, the Tory party may struggle to rule cohesively. Similarly, Labour’s division, initiated with the fall of ‘New Labour’ and the shift to the left as the party advocates more radical policies, is isolating many social democrats. The 2019 European Parliamentary election further demonstrated that Labour has not had a clear Brexit stance. This links to poor leadership in both parties as neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn managed to use the Whip system during the indicative votes. Furthermore, though Theresa May’s Government was blamed for Britain’s position immediately prior to the December general election, an effective opposition is pinnacle to our political system working. Labour has provided inadequate scrutiny of the Government, for example over Brexit, Universal Credit and the Windrush scandal. This undermines the nature of the Westminster model of democracy. Britain is the world’s archetypal majoritarian system but requires a strong opposition to prevent tyranny of the majority.

Ultimately, the most salient factor is that our political system is organic and intentionally structured to develop over time due to our uncodified constitution. We can be confident that we will manage to change the current flaws in our system for the better as historically, whenever an issue has arisen with our system of governance, we have adapted. The House of Lords previously held more power than the elected commons, most notoriously the power of parliament eventually superseding that of the crown, The Great Reform Act of 1832 (enfranchising a significant number of people) and devolved powers to the ‘Home Nations’ demonstrate that the British system can adapt to either remove flaws or evolve with society. British politics could never truly be broken because, in essence, we employ a fluid system. JG

Joshua 299463

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