In Praise of Indirect Democracy

We like to think that we elect governments – and most parties encourage this view with national campaigning, leaders’ debates and an emphasis on party discipline.

But we actually elect representatives to form a Parliament. It is members of that Parliament that vote to support a government and they decide issues rather than us. In that respect our democracy is “indirect”.

We are being progressively encouraged to think that more “direct” democracy is “better”. Witness the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners and the push for directly elected mayors.

I think this is wrong and that, for reasons of coherence and accommodating diversity, indirect democracy has a lot going for it.

This is particularly so as we face a potentially complicated hung parliament. This means that we are unlikely to have a government with a clear parliamentary majority – we will not have “elected a government”. So it will be up to our MPs, as a Parliament, to decide who forms the executive. This requires them to act as parliamentarians not as party hacks wedded to a series of “red-line promises”, “manifesto pledges” and “policy millstones”.


I suspect that if we had constant policy referenda in the UK there could be simultaneous majorities for:

  • Cutting taxes, and for
  • Increasing Spending on Health and Education

or for:

  • An immediate increase in the number of nurses, and for
  • A ban on further immigration

or for:

  • an immediate cut in defence procurement, and for
  • ensuring we can continue to defend the Falklands

By delegating our detailed decision making powers to councils, assemblies and parliaments we hope that they can reconcile the contradictions and come up with a coherent set of policies to implement.

Protection of Minorities

An “equal society” cannot work by ignoring minorities – there has to be some give and take.

We used to live in binary societies – the UK until recently was predominantly Conservative or Socialist, just as the USA is still predominantly Republican or Democrat. The give and take in binary societies takes the form of the losers in an election being reasonably confident that their turn would come. They could then undo the “damage” that they thought the others had done and do a whole lot of things that the others would later try to undo. Such are “see-saw politics” – but each majority administration could claim a strong mandate.

If you are not part of the binary system, you will never get a turn under a direct system (such as the US Presidential system). And if an indirect parliamentary system (such as our own) behaves as if it is a direct system (with the voters electing the government), minorities will be permanently excluded.

This is because in situations where we are all minorities (no party having a clear popular majority) an indirect system behaving as a direct system leads to the “tyranny of the largest minority”. We have to clear up this confusion.

If we really want a Presidential System where we directly elect a single party nominee as Prime Minister we should dramatically change our system:

  • Direct Prime Ministerial Elections
  • The Prime Minister then appoints the Government – as now, but logically they should not have to restrict themselves so much to choosing members from the House of Commons.
  • The House of Commons is then elected purely as a Legislature (like the US House of Representatives).
  • The Government does not have to achieve a majority for its programme (The Queen’s Speech) from the House of Commons because the head of that Government is directly elected “by the people”.
  • The Government does however, on a bill by bill basis, have to get its programme through the House – because they are the representatives “of the people”.

But do we want this? Into the near future we would have Conservative or Labour Prime Ministers – which will suit about a 1/3rd of the people at each election and mean near permanent exclusion of the 1/3 who do not vote for the two major parties. Even if we adopted a preferential voting system (such as for the London Mayor), all that we would be doing is allowing the excluded third to choose their second or third or even fourth choice candidate. The resulting “winner” would then try to implement their party manifesto (which only has minority support). Not a very appetising prospect if your party cannot be the biggest minority and is consequently permanently excluded.

Having a legislature that may not support a directly elected leader of the executive can act as some form of restraint – or as a source of grid-lock and frustration depending on your point of view. If there is a severe difference of view you then find that a “leader” of the legislature (like the House Majority Leader in the US Congress) starts to have excessive power and challenges, overtly or covertly, the directly elected leader of the Government. In effect you have two conflicting “wills of the people”.

So do we really want a change such as this? Or, can we get the current system reformed so that it behaves as part of an indirect Parliamentary system?

  • We elect representatives to Parliament
  • The system tries to ensure that this parliament is representative of the diversity of opinion across the country. This tends to point towards some system of proportional representation – with multi-member constituencies so that sizeable minorities get representatives. The maths usually work so that:
    • In a three member constituency, a minority will be represented if it can gain just over a quarter of the electorate’s support.
    • In a four member constituency, a minority will be represented if it can gain just over a fifth of the electorate’s support.
    • In a five member constituency, a minority will be represented if it can gain just over a sixth of the electorate’s support.
    • etc. (To prove the above, consider the situation where in a three member constituency, three people have been elected with minimal support – each has just over a quarter of electorate supporting them, so there is less than a quarter of the electorate remaining to support the runner-up.)
  • Whilst candidates may well stand under a party banner (as a short-hand for the sort of policies they will support) they should be independently minded and motived to retain or even gain support in their constituencies. This means that any electoral system should not involve “lists” where your position on the “list” is dependent on party loyalty. (I know, that pretty much pushes us towards STV!)
  • We, the electorate, have to accept that unless collectively we elect a Parliament where one party has true majority support, no “manifesto” will become a programme for government.
  • Since coalition Governments will become the norm we have to accept that after an inconclusive election there has to be some negotiation of a programme for government. But, hey, we have just elected a representative body – aren’t they the best people to do that? The resultant government – representing a consensus is in effect elected by the House of Commons by supporting a Queen’s Speech.
  • We as an electorate have to grow up and not expect minority parties (i.e. currently all of them) to fully implement their manifestos. Likewise parties should be wary of manifestos with too many red-lines. If they do not win an outright majority they will have to compromise. If we do not like the compromise we can kick out those MPs who supported it at the next election. (And in a reformed system, an MP who is unpopular with their party can still appeal directly to their electorate – which makes them freer to defy their party when it comes to voting for a Queen’s Speech.)

As a country (UK) we are not able to focus our support on a single party and grant it a majority. Different groups have different needs and agenda and, particularly this time round, different parts of the country have substantially different aspirations. In these circumstances a party with minority support in the country should not have majority power in Parliament – or even try to bluster its way through as a minority government defying other parties to vote them down.

Let’s have a bit of true (indirect) Parliamentary Democracy!

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