A dangerous deficit of democracy in Britain


HONG KONG — In spite of the United Kingdom’s robust and rumbustious election campaign, once the votes were counted and the winning members of Parliament (MPs) were declared, it was clear that the U.K. is suffering a dangerous and growing democratic deficit.

Yes, this election has been different and there is the excuse that the voters returned a hung parliament, where no party has a majority, so there is lots of horse trading that has to be done in private to try to put together a workable government with sufficient support to tackle pressing problems, which include mounting government deficits and debts, high unemployment and a fragile currency.

The Conservatives claim a moral victory by being the biggest party, with 306 of the 650 seats and 36.1 percent of the popular vote, but not enough to form a majority. Brown and his Labour Party that has ruled for three elections and 13 years won only 258 seats with 29 percent of the popular vote, but still maintains the constitutional right to continue in office in the absence of any other leader with “a mandate.” The Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of the popular vote but got only 57 seats because of the British first-past- the-post electoral system under which someone can be elected with far fewer than half the vote.

The extent of the distortion is clear in the number of MPs the major parties got for each 1 percent share of the popular vote. The Conservatives won 8.476 MPs for each 1 percent of the popular vote; Labour did slightly better, with 8.897 MPs for each 1 percent; but the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) were shortchanged, getting only 2.478 members. The LibDems point out that governments habitually gain power with the support of only 25 percent of the population (including those who didn’t vote).

It is part of the shameless greed for power — and a feature of the democratic deficit — that Labour offered the LibDems an instant election reform law to tempt them into a coalition arrangement. It is hard to think of a more certain recipe for disaster, not least because there would be a bitter row that could halt government completely. Conservatives would certainly oppose proportional representation, for which the LibDems are pressing, and election reform is a much broader concept, which needs careful thought and planning.

In the medium term, proportional representation could be an answer to part of the democratic deficit because it would probably bring about regular hung parliaments and continuous serious discussions about policy. But to rush in is risky, not least because there are so many different forms of proportional representation that even the support of a popular referendum would not settle.

The present first-past-the-post system makes sure that the most popular candidate is elected, even if he or she is only popular with a minority. Other possible methods include a single transferable vote or a list system, in which voters rank their candidates. But both of these often mean that the least unpopular person is chosen. The Japanese hybrid system of constituency MPs and a proportional representation national list is worth considering. But in the U.K. there are also live issues of what to do about the House of Lords, which is still only half-reformed with the disqualification of most hereditary peers from the legislative process.

The democratic deficit runs wide and deep and starts on the campaign trail when the leaders and candidates have to press the flesh, but they are less than honest about answering questions. None of the major parties came clean about how they would tackle the U.K.’s growing budget deficit that Brown has steadily accumulated as finance chief under Prime Minister Tony Blair and then as prime minister, and which the International Monetary Fund warned was unsustainable even before the world recession.

All parties produce manifestos, including specific and vague promises on a smorgasbord of issues, on the basis of which they can claim that the electorate supports their policies, however well or badly designed.

The democratic deficit continues with the fact that voters, once they have made their “X” on the ballot paper have limited means of making their views known. They can write letters to newspapers or lobby their local MPs at the “surgeries” the MPs hold regularly. But today’s MPs, rather than being the wise men exercising their discretion at all times that Edmund Burke spoke of, are increasingly cannon fodder used to pass whatever laws their party leaders demand. Wise retired civil servants in the U.K. have increasingly complained that laws are increasingly badly drafted and half-baked.

Party leaders meanwhile retreat behind a wall of security and spin, emerging from time to time to hold “press conferences” at which there are either no questions or only banal ones with banal answers.

The U.K. is not unique. I got an e-mail recently from Michelle Obama and one from Barack Obama answering questions I had not asked. This fake dialogue — which is really only White House spin to promote its own agenda — was sparked by a simple question I asked — about the president’s China travel schedule that his office never deigned to answer: When did Obama hold a proper press conference where he had to answer questions he preferred were not asked?

In these days of constant threats and high security, political leaders live in an unreal bubble. But they are not super-humans. Indeed, because of the heavy pressures on them, are probably more prone to make miscalculations and mistakes than ordinary people. Somehow they must find ways of coming out of their protective cocoons to smell the ordure — and occasionally the sweet roses — that their policies have produced, or the democratic deficit will catch up with us all.

Kevin Rafferty is a British journalist who has worked for the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Sun