A Liberal Party Policy Statement
Democracies must be kept in constant repair to keep pace with the aspirations and political sophistication of the electorate. We have a measure of freedom and democracy in the UK but radical action is required to address what appears to be a complete lack of interest in elections, as is evidenced by low turnouts, declining membership of political parties, low calibre of candidates standing for public office, and a complete absence in many areas of grass roots activity such as canvassing, leafleting and displaying of posters. Liberals propose the following measures:
Reform of the Voting System
Our traditional first past the post system of voting is not so much undemocratic as simply an archaic and inefficient mechanism which wastes millions of votes. Such waste would not be tolerated in an industrial process or on a company balance sheet; it must not be tolerated at the ballot box.
The solution is simple: existing single member constituencies need to be swept away and replaced by multi-member constituencies returning 4 or 5 MP’s. Each constituency would be based on natural communities, rather than unnatural constituencies that happen to be the right size to return one MP. Moreover, electors would no longer vote with an inflexible “X” - the mark of illiteracy - but would number their candidates in order of preference and the ballot would be counted in a way that would ensure that their votes would be utilised as fully as possible. This system, known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), would be used for all elections to public office, and is favoured by Liberals because of the greater choice and empowerment given to voters, and because it does not require formal party political structures to function. STV delivers proportional representation of people as opposed to mere proportional representation of parties brought about by party list and hybrid top up systems which Liberals oppose. The Liberal Party therefore calls for the introduction (before the next general election) of the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies based on utilising current city, unitary authority and county boundaries.
The Liberal Party welcomes proposals to introduce the Single Transferable vote in local elections in Scottish Local Authorities. The Liberal Party urges all Councillors and members to request their local authorities to demand the introduction of STV for local elections at the earliest opportunity
The Liberal Party believes that the current practice of general elections being called at the whim of the party in office is undemocratic and calls for Parliament to be elected for a fixed 5 year term, subject to a government being able to maintain the confidence of parliament.
The nomination and support of candidates needs review. Liberals wish to abolish the monetary obstacle of the deposit system currently in use for all Parliamentary and Assembly elections, replacing it with a fair nomination procedure which requires candidates to show evidence of verifiable support. Liberals also propose that all candidates be required to accept nomination by signing a declaration in front of an appropriate town hall official.
Once candidates are properly nominated they should be offered certain basic facilities to enable them to communicate their policies to the electorate, and we call for replacement of the limited freeposting of election addresses for Parliamentary and Assembly candidates with an enhanced polling card mailing for all elections which not only contains details of where to vote, but also the details of each candidate standing, how (s)he can be contacted for more information, and a statement from each candidate, which is relevant to the election and is vetted by the Returning Officer.
Liberals believe that young adults attaining the age of 16 should be able to stand for election to public office.
No individual should be debarred from standing for election to their local council because they are employed by that authority, providing that no conflict of interest exists relating to the individual’s employment and an appropriate distinction is maintained between policy and management.
Liberals call for the appointment of an Election Ombudsman to whom all candidates would have right of appeal without incurring financial liabilities.
Liberals believe that all elected representatives should be free to serve their constituents as they think best and we oppose the use of “three line whips” and their equivalents at all levels of government.
Liberals oppose the need for political parties to be registered by a Government agency, believing this to constitute an illiberal interference by the state in the formation and operation of independent political parties which are essential for a healthy democracy. The Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 has placed a severe handicap on smaller parties, which are heavily dependent on voluntary activity, and who are already disadvantaged by the electoral system and a national media bias in favour of the larger parties. Liberals believe that PPERA has over-burdened already fragile and under-resourced local political associations.
The Liberal Party believes that the revitalisation of British politics will not be achieved through the government funding of political parties which will simply encourage the publication of more trash material to the direct benefit of the printing and advertising industries, is concerned that the maximum expenditure limits for elections have been allowed to rise to a level where they reduce the ability of small parties to compete effectively but greatly increase the influence of wealthy donors.
The Liberal Party believes these limits should be reduced by at least 50%.
Further, assembly calls for the abolition of the Electoral Commission, whose bureaucratic activities hamper those parties which rely on voluntary involvement and has proved ineffective as a regulator of standards in political financing.
Communication and Election
Coverage by the Media
Liberals believe that voters ought to be made to feel more involved in the democratic process. Public announcements of all elections should be broadcast, detailing nomination procedures, timetables and postal voting arrangements.
We propose that steps be taken to carry out any reforms that are necessary to ensure that all levels of government are consistent, coherent, and easily understood by the electorate, so that the political profession, the media and the voters become accustomed to a natural and ordered rhythm of government, debate and elections.
In particular, we would re-awaken the interest of young people in politics by dropping the minimum voting age to 16 and ensuring that each 16 year old receives a brochure from the Home Office setting out the basics of government and democracy in this country, supplemented by practical guidance from schools.
We wish to reform press and media coverage of elections via with a view to ensuring election coverage which is factual, interesting and issue-led rather than dictated by spin-doctors. Traditional election broadcasting would be supplemented by factual commentaries devoted to key topics edited from information provided by political parties and then pooled for use by all broadcasters and press, with a strict allocation of media coverage to parties in proportion to the number of seats being contested.
Liberals call for an amendment to the Advertising Code to bring political advertising within the overall national code and, as an interim measure, require political advertisements to make it clear that they are not covered by the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion.
The Right to Vote
We would reduce the minimum voting age to 16.
The compilation of the electoral register should be streamlined to enable its continual update throughout the year.
Voter turnout on polling day should be encouraged by declaring it a mid-week public holiday and by naming it “Democracy Day”.
Liberals believe that our proposals for reform of the voting system, the nomination of candidates, our measures to assist communication with voters and our ideas for voter involvement are preferable to compulsory balloting or electronic/electronic/ mechanised or other forms of remote voting, which Liberals oppose.
In particular, liberals oppose any extension of postal voting, especially any repetition of the compulsory postal voting experiment, which amounted to an invitation to commit electoral offences and resulted in the widespread fraud and undue influence.
The basis of Liberal policy on government is that power and service provision is devolved down to the lowest and most local decision making body consistent with the efficient use of resources. In this way, much of the power currently concentrated at Westminster and Whitehall could be devolved, leaving Parliament to manage the economy and international affairs. At the moment, it is doing too much and doing it badly. Areas such as strategic planning, the environment and social security should be devolved to the new Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Cornish and English Regional Governments.
Moreover, Liberals believe as an article of faith that the best democracy is local democracy. Local planning, recreation, promotion of the arts, and care of our towns and villages should be the responsibility of small local councils resembling existing town, parish and community authorities but with greater powers. Services currently operated by county councils would be devolved down to these “community councils” or the district councils.
As a key element in strengthening local democracy, Liberals believe that:
- local Town, Parish or Community Councils should be established throughout the UK
- each Council would typically serve a population of 2,000 to 5,000 people with between 5 to 15 elected Councillors
- each Council should be permitted to choose to call itself a town, parish, community or neighbourhood Council
- local Councils should have the option of taking control of all publicly owned community halls, play areas and public open spaces in their areas, with any remaining in district Council hands to be treated as “special expenses” so that the costs are charged specifically to the areas they serve.
Liberals are opposed to the Local Government Standards and Organisation Act which we believe to be fundamentally flawed, undemocratic and illiberal. In particular liberals call for the abolition of the Local Government Standards Board, which is arbitrary and capricious in its decision making. Its powers amount to a fetter on free speech and runs contrary to the notion of supremacy of democracy.
New Labour initiatives for “Best Value” elected mayors and Whitehall cabinet style local administration will add to the costs of local administration and further remove citizens from the centres of local political control and power. Thus liberals call for the government to remove the obligation on local councils to adopt ‘executive’ cabinet / scrutiny committee models, leaving local authorities free to return to former committee structures if they so wish.
By placing power in the hands of small cliques within each Council New Labour’s proposals restrict the rights of ‘back benchers’ and opposition groups; they will lead to a full time and salaried political elite further removed from the diversity of the wider community making them less representative and more remote; they will make politically ‘balanced’ Councils unworkable; they increase the likelihood of officer control and the risk of corruption within local government. Directly elected Mayors will create excessive centralisation of power which can only lead to less democracy and less scrutiny and greater potential for corruption.
Liberals call for the introduction by law of a compulsory register of Councillors’ interests. We also seek the introduction of a statutory code of conduct to define the role of councillors, prevent officers from withholding information from opposition members without good reason, and tighter limits on the extent to which the policies of the ruling group can be publicised at the taxpayer's expense.
The Liberal Party believes action must be taken regarding the manifold administrative failures in Government departments , as evidenced in the Home Office in the matter of
released prisoners and in DEFRA in the matter of delayed payments to farmers, as requiring a radical review of how Ministers perform their duties. Liberals therefore call for:
- a streamlining of the channels which convert policy into the delivery of objectives and entitlements,
- a freeze on new enactments until it can be demonstrated that existing legislation and approved Orders can be efficiently delivered,
- setting of performance targets for Ministers to be reported to Parliament so that the public can see that appointments ( and reshuffles) are based on performance rather than personal allegiance to the Prime Minister who would have his/her own performance targets to meet.
An all-party Business Committee needs to be set up in Parliament to manage the affairs of both houses more effectively; in particular, more time should be given to the debate of Private Members’ Bills. Parliamentary committee systems need to be strengthened so that ministers and civil servants are more accountable. The Liberal Party commends the Committee on standards in public life for its important and constructive work.
Members of Parliament
Liberals believe that it is a fundamental principle of democracy that all MPs who are duly elected by their constituents have equal access to the facilities of Parliament in order that they may represent their constituents, no matter how repugnant or illiberal the views of the MPs in question may be.
The Second Chamber
Liberals believe that there is a need for a second chamber but that a mainly hereditary institution is inappropriate in a modern democracy. We recognise the need for the composition of the second chamber to be significantly different from that of the House of Commons.
Accordingly we call for the House of Lords to be replaced by a Senate comprising:
- elected representatives, including representatives from Gibraltar and the Falkland and Channel Islands;
- honorary life senators, not exceeding one third of the total, appointed according to individual merit and experience but have regard for political balance.
The role of the Senate would be to scrutinise legislation proposed by the House of Commons to ensure that it complied with the Constitution, with international law and with the European Convention on Human Rights. Implicit in its role would also be a review of the future of the honours system. The Senate would elect a President of the Senate who would chair the Senate and exercise all the political functions presently carried out by the monarch, whose continuing role would be purely ceremonial.
The Role of the Monarchy
We believe that there is no place in a Liberal society for any form of hereditary power, however notional. As both the monarchy and the House of Lords posses residual political power, we would remove all remaining political power from the monarchy, including dissolving, proroguing, summoning and opening Parliament, assenting to Acts of Parliament, appointing the Prime Minister, presiding over the Privy Council, issuing pardons, signing treaties, and so on.
It is a necessary part of creating a Liberal society for the monarchy to retain a purely ceremonial role and for all members of the Royal Family to pay full UK tax, including inheritance tax. State funding of the monarchy should be confined to the monarch, the consort and the heir to the throne, at the level necessary for them to fulfil their ceremonial duties. All members of the Royal Family should have the right to vote.
The State and the Church
Liberals believe that the state and the church should be separate and that the state should neither discriminate against nor endorse any religion or religious doctrine.
We therefore believe that an established church with the monarch as the constitutional head of state and head of the Church of England is no longer appropriate, given that few of the population adhere to any church and a significant number of citizens are followers of religions other than Christianity. We also believe that establishment has detrimental effects on the Church of England in that, for example, appointment of Bishops is made by the monarch on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, a system which opens the possibility of political considerations entering into such appointments.
Our aim is to put the Church of England on the same footing as any other religious community. Pending its replacement by an elected body, we call for the removal from the House of Lords of the twenty-six Bishops who presently have the right to sit therein, whereas other religious representatives have no such right.
Access to Information and Accountability
It is essential to the creation of open government and accountability that there is access to accurate information and statistics. Once the best in the world, Britain’s Government Statistical Service has been the subject of cut backs and official figures are now inaccurate, vague and not as comprehensive as those of our major overseas competitors. Moreover, the Service has been accused of 'massaging' some figures for political purposes. Liberals support the recommendations of the Royal Statistical Society and would create a central Statistical Service whose independence would be protected by statute, whose task would be to collate statistics for government and the community, and whose work would be overseen by a National Statistical Commission to assess lapses in accuracy.
Liberals are concerned at the growth in non-elected and unaccountable regulatory bodies and call for:
- the establishment of a National Regulatory Office, directly answerable to a House of Commons Select Committee on Regulatory Regimes;
- a change in Parliamentary procedures to allow members of the public to make formal complaints about maladministration by official bodies and government departments directly to the Commissioner for Administration, without the complaint having to be referred by an MP;
- the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be widened to include all units of the state, including QUANGOS, non-departmental public bodies and local authorities.
Public participation and democracy
The Liberal Party is opposed to the use of referenda in general, and certainly does not wish to see government by referenda. It is dangerous to pretend that complex issues can be resolved by means of simple questions with yes or no answers. However, we believe that referenda would be necessary to effect changes in any written constitution were such to be adopted. Further, even in the absence of a written constitution we would advocate the use of referenda to determine constitutional changes.
We fully support the concept of a participatory democracy and welcome the citizens’ jury initiative sponsored by the local government management board as a useful innovation. Such juries, which are already an established feature of local government in Germany and the USA, are a useful step towards a more participatory democracy, provided that they are not used in such a way as to usurp the decision making role of councillors.
The Liberal Party urges the wider adoption of this approach, for example, as part of the planning inquiry process for major new developments.