Unequal electoral participation rates in the UK – by age, class, region and ethnicity – reflect underlying inequalities in levels of political participation more broadly, and – critically – perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. Ingrained political inequality – that is, the extent to which certain individuals or groups participate more in, and have greater influence over, political decision-making – is undermining the legitimacy and vitality of our democracy.
It is in large part a product of a political system whose institutions and technologies are primarily inventions of the 19th century. If we, in the 21st, accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy.
We cannot let this happen. Instead, in this report we argue for substantial yet realistic and readily deliverable reforms focussed on updating the civic, institutional and technological architecture of democracy in the UK, with the explicit goals of ensuring that all voices are heard in the political process, and of fostering and sustaining powerful democratic relationships in society.
We need to make the electoral system more representative and participation less unequal, thereby ensuring that the voting process becomes more inclusive with lower barriers to participation. We also need to create new institutions and reform existing ones in order to strengthen democratic relationships. To that end, we make the following recommendations.
- The UK’s boundary commissions should be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of a seat when reviewing constituency boundaries – a process that begins in the spring of 2016.
- The single transferable vote system – already successfully used in Scotland and Northern Ireland –should be introduced in England and Wales for local government elections.
- Reforms should be made to ensure that the transition to the individual electoral registration process does not disenfranchise people – by extending the deadline and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, as they did in the run-up to the 2015 election (weighted towards authorities with higher levels of underregistration). In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, in this area.
- Establish a ‘Democracy Commission’ to facilitate democratic participation, with the goal of increasing levels of political participation and deliberation in the UK.
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