top of page
  • Tom Burrows

The Lib Dems: A Bastion of British Democracy

Not that long ago, an article was published titled “The Liberal Democrats: An Affront to British Democracy”. The article, by Roberto White can be found here: . It was eloquently written and raised several thought-provoking points. Unfortunately, I take exception to – well, everything in it.

On Brexit, the article derides the Liberal Democrats for their anti-democratic stance, complaining that by promising to cancel Brexit if she gains a majority Jo Swinson is ignoring the will of the people: first demonstrated in the 2016 referendum where Britain voted to leave the EU, and then again in the 2019 European elections where the Brexit Party won a plurality of the seats. How can a party which claims to be ‘democratic’ go against such a clear popular mandate for Brexit?

The answer, it seems, is in the question. The Liberal Democrats have been transparent on their Brexit policy for several years, and so if they did win a majority which enabled them to revoke Article 50, I doubt it would come as a surprise to those who voted them into power. People would have to vote for the Lib Dems for the Lib Dems to cancel Brexit – and therein lies the democratic component.

Yet, it may be said, does the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system not regularly result in outcomes whereby a party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons yet only a plurality of votes? If true, then surely a Liberal Democrat government would not have the mandate of the people to stop Brexit?

Unfortunately for the author he cannot use this reply, as he dismisses any representational inadequacies of the FPTP system on the grounds of efficiency. By implication of his own argument, then, even if more people voted against than for the Liberal Democrats, the party would still have the democratic mandate to cancel Brexit – provided they received the most ‘seats’.

This conclusion – even for radical, anti-Brexit centrists like myself – is unpalatable. All votes should count the same, irrelevant of where they originate. Electoral reform is normatively desirable, then, but what for the critique that it leads to government standstill? Surely, for much the same reason we don’t have direct democracy, some sacrifices need to be made in the representation department in the interests of getting things done?

This conclusion is not borne out by the empirics. Awkwardly for the author, two of the three countries he cites as cut-and-dry examples of why proportional representation (PR) doesn’t work – Germany and Sweden – are deemed more effective in governing by the World Bank than the UK. Both countries are also richer in per capita terms, implying economic benefits of PR too. As for the third country – Italy – I would argue its democratic problems neither start nor end with PR.

And the strengths of PR aren’t finished there. By accommodating a wide range of views, a PR system encourages an approach to politics based on the need to compromise to meet the needs of key groups, rather than having a plurality – not even majority – dominate the political sphere, as happens in the UK political arena. The need to build consensus and find ‘a middle ground’ is absent in British politics, which manifests itself into crisis when an issue such as Brexit divides the country almost equally – neither side has the tools to negotiate a way out of the deadlock. This is something a Lib Dem government, through PR and the moving toward a federal UK, would go some way to remedying.

Nor is it right to conclude that PR would necessarily lead to the growth of extremist parties. The National Democratic Party of Germany, the most significant far-right outgrowth since 1945, has never won enough votes for a seat in the federal Bundestag. Platforming such groups, demonstrating their theoretical incoherencies and lack of any real support, stumps their growth far more effectively than shunning them from the political sphere and allowing them to fester.

Unfortunately, I do not have the space to adequately respond to all the points raised in the article, and so I limit the rest of this piece replying to the most important of the points not yet mentioned: voting rights.

The argument that 16 and 17-year olds are not mature enough to vote is one which has been shown to be untrue. In Austria, the lowering of the voting age and the tailoring of a political education alongside it has been attributed to an increase in interest in politics amongst young people, leading to higher turnout and more critical citizens. Such an education is lacking in Scotland, but there is still evidence that interest in politics has increased amongst young people. It is not persuasive to argue that the ability for citizens to legally buy cigarettes should determine whether they can vote. It is persuasive to say that if citizens are getting taxed, as some 16-year olds are, they should have a say in how that money is spent through enfranchisement.

Finally, giving EU citizens who have lived in the UK for 5 years the vote does not invalidate the concept of voting. Ultimately, the only message it sends to the British people is that if someone contributes to British society in a significant sense, that person should have a say in how British society is run. Where you are born is random: where you choose to live, and work, is not. Surely, then, this latter factor should decide where you have a say in governance?

Ultimately, I would argue that the Liberal Democrats are a bastion of British democracy, and to borrow from my opposing writer Roberto, implore you, “for the love of god”, to vote Lib Dem at this election.

bottom of page