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National Democracy Week

July 2, 2018 5:14 PM
By Bryan Lewis
House of Commons Parliamentary Debate (Catherine Bebbington/Parliamentary Copyright http://www.parliament.uk/site-information/copyright/use-of-parliamentary-photographic-images/)

House of Commons

This week is the first National Democracy Week which was set up by the Cabinet Office, the week is based on the idea that we must "ensure that every member of society has an equal chance to participate in our democracy and to have their say".

It's a good intention but we are nowhere near that vision being a reality in the UK. Millions of people already participate in elections in the UK. But it's a sad reality that unless they live in a battleground seat that might change hands, their vote is thrown on the electoral scrapheap. But on the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act - which gave women the same voting rights as men - we have to recognise that the UK's franchise is grossly unequal.

1 Westminster's broken system

Each constituency has just one MP and that means that all votes cast for anyone but the elected MP are discarded. But there's another injustice not often discussed: all votes for MP above what they need to win are also discarded too - they do not count towards the final result.

There are fairer ways of electing representatives already in use in the UK. Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland are used to the idea of the seats in parliament matching how they vote. They do not just putting one X but number their choices in order of preference - if their first choice vote isn't needed, their second choice is taken instead, and so on. Votes aren't thrown on the electoral scrapheap - and you don't have to second-guess your fellow citizens by settling for a 'lesser evil'.

2 An unequal franchise

In Scotland - and soon Wales - 16 and 17-year-olds have the vote. But they, and over a million in the rest of the UK are denied a say for Westminster. 16 and 17-year-olds took part in huge numbers in the Scottish independence referendum. And they've stayed engaged since. In Wales, there are plans to extend a democratic say to those young adults.

But these people will still be unable to vote in arguably the most important ballots, General Elections. The experience from Scotland has revealed that 16 and 17-year-olds embrace the responsibility of being able to vote when they have it. So it's time to fix Britain's unequal franchise and extend that right.

3 A House of Cronies

The most startling inequality sits within the walls of Parliament. The Lords is largely made up of appointed life peers. A vast number of these have previously worked in politics - and it has become something of a private member's club. There are still 92 hereditary peers - 91 men and one woman who inherited their titles. This, in the 21st century.

4 The political gender gap

Women are still not fairly represented in politics as a whole. With women making up only 33% of local councillors, only four out of 16 elected mayors, and no directly-elected metro-mayors, the issue of women's representation extends well beyond the walls of Westminster.

But there is no official information on the diversity of those standing for election at any level of government. Equality legislation already exists which would make this information transparent but the government has not enacted it. Why are they dragging their feet on this simple change?

There is so much to be done to ensure everyone has equal access to politics in the UK. Thankfully, many of the changes won't take much to implement.

But in Democracy Week of all times, it's vital that we start trying to make that vision - for "an equal chance to participate in our democracy" - a reality.

ballot box