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Ben Deaner has published 8 articles

It's as democratic as you make it

The NHS reforms show how easily public opinion gets steamrollered in this country, and the necessity of constitutional reform
Ben Deaner on Thursday 29th March 2012
Photograph: Edward Crompton

So it's done, it's over, it's passed. Well, almost. After a year and a bit of vehement opposition from doctors, nurses and the public, not to mention plenty of wrangling between the Lib Dems and Tories, Andrew Lansley's controversial NHS reforms have made it through the Lords. The cabinet is said to have celebrated with traditional tabletop fist-banging, and the act will come into force shortly before Easter, once it is given royal assent.

We find ourselves in a situation where far-reaching reforms that were unmentioned in the Conservative campaign, and even implicitly rejected in the coalition agreement, will be passed without even a nod to widespread public opposition. To add further offence, the party pushing the bill failed to gain even a parliamentary majority. What, then, does this say about Britain as a democracy?

For their five-year term, the party we elect holds legislative power that is almost totally free from any formal constraints. Our system of cabinet government, our first-past-the-post electoral system, and in particular the powerful whip rules all serve to further concentrate party power in the cabinet, and even amongst a handful of individuals in the case of certain administrations, such as Thatcher's or Blair's. In the absence of any formal checks on power, all we are left with are informal checks. Our entire democracy rests on the flimsy assumption that our elected representatives will voluntarily act in accordance with our wishes. MPs may do so in order to secure re-election, since unpopular reform is likely to hurt them at the polls, though if we are optimistic we might put this down to a noble respect for vague principles of popular sovereignty..

These may well be a strong constraints on government behaviour much of the time, but for the NHS reforms, the resultant decline in popularity has proven an insufficient deterrent. The Conservatives are polling consistently behind Labour, despite the perceived lack of charisma that dogs its wobbly-faced leader, and it is easy to understand how they might think it wise to rush through as much reform as they can now, in case they lose the next election.

The surest way to prevent such failures of democracy would be constitutional reform. However, there is no complete constitutional change that would provide a silver bullet solution.The American system, for example, has a clear separation of powers, a strong emphasis on regionalism, and consequently endless disunity within its political parties. It does curtail the possibility of an elected dictatorship, but with the unfortunate side-effect of leaving the American government embarrassingly impotent.

Perhaps there is a happy medium. Lower caps on campaign spending would leave candidates less reliant on the support of their parties, as would preferential voting, which would place independents at less of a disadvantage. This would serve to weaken party discipline, and so help decentralise power away from the cabinet. An elected second chamber, with long terms and a full veto, could be less partisan and more open to public opinion. More radical would be a constitutional requirement for referenda on controversial reforms that fail to pass with a 2/3 majority.

This is just idle speculation, my point is that we need constitutional change. But while this is not forthcoming there is still a palliative to the problem at hand: outrage. We have grown used to governments abusing their mandates to force through reforms that hardly anyone actually wants; columnists talk of bills being passed 'in the face of overwhelming public opposition' as if this were somehow legitimate or even normal. Reactions both in the opposition and the press have tended to stick to grumbling about the reforms themselves; instead, the coalition's wanton abuse of power should spark outrage in its own right, and above all that outrage has to be carried to the ballot box. If our political system creates elected dictatorships, then we must try as best we can to pressure those elected dictators to act like democrats.