How to remodel British democracy

Ian Silvera

April 21, 2020

The onus of proof should always be on the would-be innovator. This is because there is nothing inherently good about change. In fact, particularly because of unforeseen circumstances, change can sometimes be bad and downright dangerous. 

The dusty old subject of parliamentary reform is no different. If we want to remodel the House of Commons and House of Lords, we better have a damn good reason to do so, otherwise it’s best to let these old cornerstones of British democracy be. It so happens that there is a good reason to do so, as the status quo doesn’t stack up as a sound system. 

For starters, the government, at least as of April 2019, has argued that the current first-past-the-post voting model provides “a clear link between constituents and their representatives in parliament”. 

The reality of the situation, however, is that political parties select prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) from shortlists, some of which are female-only, and the Conservative party method allows constituency associations, small groups of local party members, to have their own say. Although, sometimes, the parties have a greater say in the matter and “parachute in” HQ-approved candidates. 

In so-called safe seats, where a party commands a large and easily defendable majority, this is particularly worrying when you consider party loyalty can trump voting on the flaws or merits of a PPC. At the 2019 general election, for instance, the two major parties, the duopoly of the Conservatives and Labour, attracted three-quarters of all votes cast. 

As Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell have pointed out, open primaries, as tried and tested in the US system, provide much more accountability, representation and engagement with constituents. 

These elections, where the electorate of a constituency gets a say on its PPCs, also effectively act as a filter, where wannabe MPs face public debate and scrutiny from the media. If held ahead of every general election, open primaries may also stop MPs from languishing on the backbenches of the Commons, while pocketing taxpayers’ cash. Combined with the 2015 Recall Act, which allows constituents to kick out their MP via a by-election, there is little doubt that open primaries can improve our democratic system. 

Another relatable concern of our current set-up is the fact that we have 650 MPs or, to put it another way, 650 constituencies represented in the Commons. Weigh this against the fact that MPs can be members of both the legislator and executive, and you are forced to ask: is this an optimal form of decision-making? If you measure this against a crude barometer of creating laws – I’d prefer them to be scrapping the bad ones – then a cursory look at the bills which received royal assent in the 2017-2019 parliament leads you to a resounding no. 

Just 70 or so draft pieces of legislation were created and passed into law over that period, which happened to include the longest parliamentary session (by number of sitting days) since the English Civil War. Recent scientific research by Princeton University and a study by Nature also show that smaller groups exhibit more accurate decision-making.

A more focused chamber can be achieved via larger constituencies. Indeed, this is something that voters are familiar with in relation to the past EU parliamentary and combined authority elections. By redrawing constituency boundaries, some serious disparities could also be addressed. The current system allows one MP to represent an electorate of around 20,000 (the Stornoway and “protected” seat of Na h-Eileanan an Iar), while another represents 110,000 constituents (Isle of Wight).  

There are also monetary benefits. Cutting the number of MPs in half to 325, by way of example, would save taxpayers at least £26.6 million per year (based on their current basic salary of £81,932), while a reduction of a third would provide at least £17.7m. These theoretical savings would reduce the cost of politics and also boost the number of advisers and staffers MPs could hire, increasing the quality of their work and engagement with voters in larger constituencies. 

Having more “bag carriers”, as staffers are sometimes unfairly referred to, is controversial on the face of it. However, these workers cost much less than MPs. The parliamentary pay watchdog IPSA recommends salaries of between £17,000 and £49,000, depending on the role and level of experience required. It is also important to take into consideration technological advancements, namely machine learning, which have the potential to automate tasks for MPs and their staffers, saving them time and therefore money. 

Constituency casework is a good example of this. Voters may have high-level questions about housing, immigration or education. A machine-learning powered chatbot, something already in use for health services, could answer these concerns and queries. It could even be linked to information on the House of Commons library website, which provides MPs with FAQs

Constituency surgeries could also, as they have done during the Covid-19 lockdown, become virtual, with voters using video calls to converse with their MPs. Elsewhere, the core model of researchers and advisers, where MPs directly hire staffers, should be looked at. In the private sector, businesses hire constituencies and agencies for similar work. 

These contracts provide flexibility on both sides of the agreement, with the consultancies and agencies working for multiple clients and businesses having the opportunity to work with multiple staffers, potentially at a rate which would only cover one in-house worker. 

Contracts, too, can last for short, medium or long periods, depending on need. The existing institutions of the Conservative parliamentary research unit and Labour’s parliamentary research service provide a way forward on this front. 

The other counter-argument against more researchers and advisers is that the UK will inadvertently professionalise politics. To borrow from Bagehot, we are best off pointing to the practical and “living reality” of parliament, rather than how our uncodified constitution has it in writing. In practice, some of our best-known MPs have spent decades in the Commons. 

The former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is in his 37th year on the green benches. But that’s not a mark on Sir Winston Churchill, who served for 63 years in the Commons. The professional politician is here to stay, so why should they and our democracy be denied the right type of assistance?

Frustratingly, there were plans to reduce the number of MPs by a measly 7.75 per cent following the 2018 boundary review recommendations, but they were perversely scrapped by the current government because of a “greater” post-Brexit workload. If you attempt to look for a justification for this move, you will not find one. Indeed, the science, history of the Commons, and taxpayers’ concerns say otherwise. By its own logic of an increased workload, the government should be jumping at the prospect of a smaller lower house. 

The House of Lords, meanwhile, currently has its own downsizing agenda by reducing the revising chamber down to 600 members from more than 780 currently. These politicians can demand a stipend of £323 per day simply for “attendance”. 

Combined with other expenses, the peers’ total bill reportedly came to £23m last year, according to the Sunday Times. If the Commons does streamline, as outlined above, the Lords should follow suit and always seek to be slightly smaller than the lower chamber. 

Again, saving money is not the only concern here. As crossbencher and academic Baroness Deech pointed out, the Lords is “overcrowded” and it is increasingly hard to get any work done. There may be a temptation to introduce a directly elected element to the upper chamber as well. But thanks to the Salisbury convention, where the Lords does not oppose the second or third reading of government-backed legislation, the electoral supremacy of the Commons is not challenged in the Lords. Electing peers is likely to put that relationship in doubt, not least because politicians have a habit of demanding more powers for themselves. 

Much of the frustration from the press and the public was aimed at peers during parliament’s infamous Brexit stalemate. The real baddie was actually the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), introduced under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. It continually prevented the government from dissolving parliament in order to hold a general election, since a two-thirds majority was needed for such a move in the Commons. The FTPA should undoubtedly be repealed. 

This measure, including a more focused, agile and decisive parliament, should ensure that the future of British democracy is strengthened. As Edmund Burke put it, “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.”


Written by Ian Silvera

Ian Silvera is a member of 1828's advisory board and a former journalist.


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