Does Johnson plan to change democracy in the UK?

The Johnson government has indicated after the 2019 election victory that it will make some significant changes to how the British system of government operates. Under his predecessors, Cameron and Theresa May, and especially after the latter lost her majority in 2017, the balance of influence between the executive and Parliament shifted strongly towards Parliament, and with a strong majority it is to be expected, as so often happens, that the balance would return to what was seen when there was last a strong majority, such as up to 1992. However there are indications that the experience of the years since the referendum has galvanised Tory determination to make greater inroads into the way democracy traditionally functions in the UK, and potentially change democracy in the UK.

The Tory manifesto

Tucked away on page 47 of the 2019 manifesto was a brief section entitled “Protect our Democracy”. The reader can find that the Conservative idea of protection includes proposals like the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, voter photo ID at pollings stations, changes in constituency boundaries, and reviewing the broader way in which the British Constitution works with a “Constitution, Rights and Democracy Commission”.

Strong executive

It should first be made clear that a landslide election victory under Britain’s “winner-takes-all” electoral system that results in a stronger executive is very typical of how the British system of government operates. There often is a fluctuation over time between was is often called Prime Ministerial government and more collegiate governing, the former usually having a large majority and strong support from the backbenches, the latter where the cabinet is more influential and backbenchers have more influence. People in Britain have perhaps become used to a weaker executive under the Cameron coalition (2010-15) and May’s minority administration (2017-19). Thus the reassertion of PM power can seem questionable in many people’s eyes.

When Johnson won the election, the ensuing legislative programme and government statements broadened what was being proposed in their manifesto. What follows is a summary of what is currently intended.

Fixed terms parliaments act repeal

Before the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the PM had the right to call an election at the time of teir chosing, a prerogative power. In order to prevent Cameron wrecking the coalition, the Liberal Democrat coalition partners secured this act to end this PM power. In effect the PM had to obtain Parliament’s consent. The measure was a considerable restriction of PM power. The act was used to great effect during the May government to prevent an election and continue to ensure Parliament’s consent to what was being proposed for Brexit. Johnson in the 2019 election argued that Parliament was abusing its role and obstructing Brexit. Thus he now plans to repeal the act.

Compulsory Voter ID

The Tories wish to introduce obligatory photo ID for voters in elections before they vote. At present no ID is required. There is currently very little ID fraud in elections and the Electoral Reform Society, an influential pressure group, argue that the measure is both unnecessary and likely to hit poor people and the young who are unlikely to possess photo ID such as a driving licence. Labour argue that the measure is blatantly partisan since the people hit are far more likely to be Labour voters, and they call it “voter suppression”.

Electoral boundary changes

Constituency boundaries are periodically redrawn to take account of changes in the distribution of the population and try to make constituencies as equal as possible. Often the change is already out of date by the time it is implemented and there is never a true equality. The last change was in 2010. The latest proposals were to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and redistribute seats. This follows on from a Boundary Commission report. Opponents say that it favours the Tories and amounts to gerrymandering.

Parliament’s function of scrutiny to be limited

There has been a gradual increase in Parliament’s ability to scrutinise and influence matters relating to foreign affairs, which has included trade deals. This was recently seen under Cameron when Parliamentary consent was sought to sending troops to Syria. After the 2016 referendum, under the Supreme Court Miller Case (2017), Parliament had the right to consent to the government activating withrawal from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Once May lost her majority, the right to consent was vigorously asserted by May’s cross-party opponents led by Letwin, Grieve, Cooper and Benn.

Under Johnson, the Withdawal Bill explicitly removes Parliamentary consent to a trade deal with the EU. Thus Johnson will have a far freer hand to negotiate with the EU without one hand tied behind his back by Parliament.

Moreover, the government’s strong majority means that it should have a much freer hand too in getting legislation passed. Control of Select Committees, which were also effective thorns in the side of the government, will pass entirely to the Tories, with majorities on the committees and their people as Chairpersons.

It is not known yet whether the government will seek to prevent a possible future seizure of control of the business of the House by its opponents to enable a backbench bill to be passed quickly to tie the hands of the government, as happened with the Cooper and Benn Acts in 2019. Speaker Bercow, who retired on 31 October 2019, was a determined supporter of the rights of Parliament but his successor is thought to be much less so.

A Conservative majority means parliamentary scrutiny is in danger of being weakened

The FPTP electoral system

The Tories do not intend to change the electoral system, despite it being widely criticised. The system tends to favour a two-party system and not coalitions, and the two big parties benefit from it. It is therefore not surprising that having gained an 80-seat majority in the 2019 general election on a 43.6% share of the vote, they would not want to change it.

Devolution and separatism

Despite the Scottish Nationalists having gained a large number of seats in Scotland on a ticket to hold a referendum on Independence, the government continues to refuse to allow a vote, arguing that the 2014 referendum was supposed to be a “once in a generation” event and is against holding another one so soon. The SNP argues that there has been a “material change”, the intention to leave the EU which Scotland opposed by 62% against in 2016. There are also demands from Sinn Fein in Ireland to hold a referendum on unification of the North with the South, the North having also voted against Brexit. The future of the Union in the UK is now very much an issue.

There are no further proposals for devolution of power to the regions of the UK.

The Constitution

The Queen’s Speech on the government programme after the 2019 election reaffirmed the intention to set up a Commission on the Constitution. It is not yet clear what this body will be, who will choose it and how representative and independent it will be. The intention is to review the constitution in the light of the assertion of judicial review in the Miller Cases of 2017 and 2019 which in turn asserted the Sovereignty of Parliament and its right of scrutiny and of holding the executive to account. The Court had in particular ruled against the use of the prerogative to prorogue Parliament for more than a few days. The Tories have question this limitation of the prerogative and use of judicial review. They have also suggested that Supreme Court judges should be political appointments as in the USA.

These plans have already drawn criticism and there is concern that the government might try to use its victory and its majority to strengthen executive power.

Other constitutional matters include proposals to overhaul the House of Lords and replace the Human Rights Act. The Tories do not have a majority in the non-elected Lords, and can face difficulties in getting legislation through, although the Lords now rarely reject legislation. The membership is also very large and therefore costly. Reform has often got bogged down in disagreements and it is not yet clear what the Tories intend and whether they have time for reform at present. The Human Rights Act has long been a target, as also is Britain’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (which is separate to the EU). The Tories dislike the accountability involved to a Europe-wide jurisdiction and would like to replace it with watered-down UK-focused Bill of Rights.

Civil Service Reform and a stronger “Office of the Prime Minister”

Dominic Cummings, the chief special adviser at No. 10, is a long-standing critic of the Civil Service. Under his influence, it is thought, the government are considering making it easier to fire senior civil servants and to bring in “outside experts”. Also they are thinking of abolishing the role of Permanent Secretary, the person who is the top civil servant in a department, and creating a strong Office of The Prime Minister. This last-mentioned has often been discussed, and would with an earlier trend to strengthen the role of the PM in government. There are arguments for and against. PM power is often strongest after a big election victory, but the pendulum can swing against it and then such a powerful office could become a focus for unrest and criticism. Read more here.

The BBC and the media

Yet again, the Conservatives have accused the BBC of “left-wing” bias during the 2019 campaign. In particular Johnson refused to do as other party leaders had done and be interviewed by a particularly tough interviewer, Andrew Neil. The row led to Tory accusations of being unfairly singled out. Channel 4 also were declined, in a leaders’ debate on Climate Change, and his position was instead occupied by an melting ice statue.

The Conservatives responded by a threat to de-criminalise the non-payment of the BBC licence fee, normally payable by everybody who has a TV set. They also threatened to review the public service role of Channel 4, which is a public service body financed by advertising.

It should also be said that Labour also accused the BBC of bias.

In a highly divisive election such as the 2019 one, the role of independent broadcasters holding each set of politicians to account can be a very difficult one, but there is concern that political interference by the government in the running of the BBC could increase after the election.

More broadly, there are concerns about how much political interference with the media is taking place and could increase further, especially in the light of the use of data mining in the 2016 US general election and suggestions of dubious activity in the UK 2016 Brexit referendum. During the 2019 election campaign, there was a lot of “fake news” advertising on social media, which is not subject to the same regulatory standards as traditional advertising. Also third parties with opaque funding were pushing advertising in favour of a political party.

Foreign interference

There has been a lot of concern expressed about foreign and particularly Russian attempts to influence the UK electoral process by covertly issuing lies and misinformation. Evidence was uncovered of such activity in 2016 and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Select Committee carried out an enquiry into Russian activities. However the government refusal to release a report it produced on russian influence before the 2019 election.

Further comment

You can read further comment on some of these issues here:

The “Independent”: Sean O’Grady

“The Conversation”


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