The House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate on 25 April 2023:

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (Green Party) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the strength of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.

1. Parliamentary democracy in the UK

The term ‘parliamentary democracy’ can suggest any form of representative democracy, but its main feature is that the executive branch “derives its mandate from, and is responsible to, the legislature”.

In the 2012 edition of the ‘Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics’, Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative), professor of government at the University of Hull, elaborated on this definition. Acknowledging that the term can occasionally be interpreted more broadly, he explained:

In its narrower and more precise definition, [parliamentary democracy] is a particular form of representative government: essentially, a democratic system in which government is drawn from and regularly answerable to the elected national assembly. Commonly, the executive is subject to dismissal on political grounds (as distinct from removal by impeachment) by that assembly. The concept itself has its origins in the nineteenth century, when the notion of democracy became allied with a parliamentary form of government.

Broader definitions of democracy include additional characteristics. For example the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international human rights treaty adopted in 1966, set out the legal basis for democratic principles in international law. The treaty included articles on freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association with others. In 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights (since replaced by the Human Rights Council) subsequently declared the following as essential elements of democracy:

  • respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • freedom of association
  • freedom of expression and opinion
  • access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law
  • the holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people
  • a pluralistic system of political parties and organisations
  • the separation of powers
  • the independence of the judiciary
  • transparency and accountability in public administration
  • free, independent and pluralistic media

In the UK, the ‘Cabinet manual’ sets out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government. It states that the UK is a parliamentary democracy which has a constitutional sovereign, a sovereign Parliament, an executive drawn from and accountable to Parliament,  and an independent judiciary.

Meg Russell, professor of British and comparative politics at University College London, has described the UK as “famously the most parliamentary of democracies”. She has argued that this status is based not just on the UK being a parliamentary democracy “in the typical sense, of the executive depending on parliamentary confidence for its survival, but beyond that on the central UK constitutional tradition of parliamentary sovereignty”.

2. International measures of democracy: How does the UK compare to other countries?

Several organisations seek to measure and track the quality of democracy across the globe. Each uses a different methodology, which influences where the UK features in their respective rankings.

2.1 Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) annual democracy index

The EIU’s annual democracy index provides a snapshot of the state of democracy in 165 independent states and two territories. Scores are based on 60 indicators, grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. Each country is then given one of four regime labels based on their average score: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime. The EIU uses this methodology because it judges that measures of democracy that focus solely on the electoral process and pluralism “do not encompass sufficiently some crucial features that determine the quality and substance of democracy”.

In the most recent edition of the index, covering 2022, the UK ranked 18 out of 23 countries sharing the ‘full democracy’ label and placed 11 within western Europe. The overall position was unchanged on the previous year’s index ranking. The following table shows how the UK scored across the five index categories.

Table 1: EIU democracy index 2022: UK scores (out of 10)

Category Score
Electoral process and pluralism 9.58
Functioning of government 7.50
Political participation 8.33
Political culture 6.88
Civil liberties 9.12
Overall score 8.28

In an accompanying country report, the EIU summarised the UK’s position within western Europe:

In a regional context the UK lags many other west European countries—the five Nordic countries, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, are among the top six globally (New Zealand ranks second), and Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg also rank higher than the UK. However, the UK is ranked above Austria, France and Spain in the ‘full democracy’ category, and four other west European peers ranked as ‘flawed democracies’, including Italy (31) and Belgium (36).

The EIU added that as a long-established democracy, the UK scored highly in the electoral process and pluralism category with a score of 9.58 out of 10. It said elections are free and transparent, and the transfer of power is a well-accepted process. However, it added that although the UK ranked highly on a global level for civil liberties with a score of 9.12, the country was “among the worst in western Europe owing to its exceptionally strict libel laws and broad surveillance powers”.

The EIU attributed the UK’s relatively low scores for certain indicators, particularly those in the political participation category, to “prolonged disillusionment with the political process following the financial crisis and the tortuous Brexit process”. It added that perceptions of corruption in government had “fed disillusionment, with several scandals around political parties selling access to politicians, payment of the renovation of the prime minister’s personal residence and members of Parliament taking second jobs as de facto lobbyists further eroding the political culture score”.

The EIU report did note however that the UK’s score for ‘perceptions of democracy’ had improved, with the annual British social attitudes survey showing that 90% of the population believe it is “vitally important to live in a democracy”.

2.2 International IDEA’s state of democracy reports

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) is an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1995 and based in Stockholm, Sweden. Its members are required to demonstrate a commitment to “the rule of law, human rights, the basic principles of democratic pluralism and strengthening democracy”. Under its global state of democracy initiative, International IDEA maintains a qualitative dataset (updated monthly) and a quantitative dataset (updated annually) on democracy and human rights-related developments in 173 countries.

In its most recent annual index, covering 2021, International IDEA judged the UK to be high performing in 13 of 16 measures spread among five “main democracy attributes”. These included ‘clean elections’, ‘effective Parliament’ and ‘local democracy’. However, the UK received a mid-range performance score for ‘social rights and equality’ and ‘electoral participation’, and a low performance score for ‘direct democracy’.

In November 2022, International IDEA noted as part of its qualitative monitoring for the UK that the UK’s Electoral Commission, election officials, local authorities and civil society organisations had all voiced concerns over the Elections Act 2022. It observed that the list of acceptable forms of voter ID that would apply to the local elections in England in May 2023 “faced criticism for disproportionately approving forms of ID held by older people vis-a-vis younger generations”. It also noted Electoral Commission concerns that the voter ID timeline had the “potential to disenfranchise parts of the electorate, particularly those already marginalised”, as well as broader concerns that the new rules could “polarise and affect trust in the electoral process”.

2.3 Varieties of Democracy’s annual democracy report

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) research project is based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The project’s most recent annual democracy report, published in March 2023, ranked the UK as a liberal democracy placed number 20 in the world. This was ahead of countries such as the USA and Canada, but behind European states such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The report cited measures indicating that academic freedom was decreasing in liberal democracies such as the UK.

2.4 Freedom House’s annual index

The US-based non-profit organisation Freedom House, which describes itself as a “pro-democracy organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world”, publishes an annual ‘Freedom in the world’ index. The most recent index, published in March 2023, gave the UK a score of 93 out of 100. This comprised a score of 39 out of 40 for political rights and 54 out of 60 for civil liberties, with both unchanged from a year earlier.

In the accompanying narrative report, Freedom House identified the UK as a “country in the spotlight” which deserved “special scrutiny” in 2023. It said this was because in 2022 the “ruling Conservative Party cycled through three prime ministers in two months, advanced new restrictions on strikes and protests, and attempted to remove certain asylum seekers to Rwanda”.

2.5 Other measures of democracy

In 2020, the Democracy Matrix project, based at the University of Würzburg in Germany, ranked the UK as a working democracy placed 17 in the world. This was ahead of G7 partners such as France, Italy, Canada, Japan and the USA, but behind Germany and non-G7 partners such as New Zealand and Australia.

In December 2022, the US-based Pew Research Centre published a report on social media and democracy which used data collected by phone surveys of adults in the UK. It found that satisfaction with democracy was mixed amongst UK respondents, with 53% of those surveyed satisfied “with the way democracy was working”, and 46% not satisfied. The survey also found that 62% of respondents felt the political system in the UK did not allow “people like them” to have any or much influence on politics, with 37% saying they felt they had a great deal or fair amount of influence.

In February 2023, Transparency International said the UK’s position in its annual corruption perceptions index had “changed markedly, and for all the wrong reasons”. Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK’s head of research and investigations, said that it was difficult to definitively attribute the fall in the UK’s position to particular events. However, he warned that “while the UK is not yet seen as a bastion of bad behaviour, it’s in real danger of falling further down this league table of good governance”, and that “impropriety in public life is in danger of becoming a norm in our country”.

Also in March 2023, the Civicus Monitor annual global index of civic freedoms compiled by a global alliance of civil society organisations rated the UK’s civic space as “obstructed”. This was on the grounds that recent legislation had sought to threaten workers’ rights to strike, place limits on citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly and limit the right to protest.

In its current country summary for the UK, Human Rights Watch says the UK government has “introduced legislation undermining the rights to protest, vote, and seek asylum while limiting judicial and parliamentary oversight of executive decisions”. It added that the “UK government’s ambition of promoting human rights and the rule of law globally is undermined by its domestic record and at times side-lined by other interests, including trade and migration control”.

3. Domestic views on the strength of the UK’s democracy

3.1 UCL Constitution Unit reports on democracy in the UK after Brexit

The Constitution Unit at University College London has published three reports as part of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. The first report, based on the findings of a survey of almost 6,500 people conducted in July 2021, found:

  • Most respondents expressed little trust in politicians.
  • They placed a high priority on integrity among politicians. They wanted those in public life to be honest, to operate within the rules, and to own up when they made mistakes.
  • They preferred not to concentrate power in the executive, but to spread it through Parliament, courts, civil servants and the public.
  • They showed far higher support for judicial interventions than is often supposed.

The second report was produced following a citizens’ assembly held online over six weekends between September and December 2021. It summarised a series of principles, resolutions, recommendations and statements agreed by participants on the subject of the UK’s democracy. These centred around three areas:

  • the balance of power between government and Parliament
  • the roles of the public—both within the traditional representative system and through processes such as petitions, referendums and citizens’ assemblies
  • ways of upholding rules and standards—covering ethical standards of behaviour from those in public life and the role of the courts

The third report, published in March 2023 and based on the findings of a second survey conducted in 2022, highlighted the following key findings:

  • Respondents indicated low trust in politicians—even lower than in summer 2021.
  • There was overwhelming public appetite for stronger mechanisms to uphold integrity among politicians, including more powerful independent regulators.
  • The vast majority of respondents wanted leaders to be held accountable through a system of checks and balances. Most wanted checks and balances to be tighter than they are today.
  • Most wanted a stronger Parliament and thought ministers should not be able to change the law without full parliamentary scrutiny.
  • Views on voting systems were mixed, but somewhat favoured a more proportional system.
  • Views on reform of the House of Lords were also mixed. There was near consensus on some moderate reforms, but not on creating an elected chamber.

The report also found “strong support for the role of judges in adjudicating disputes about the role of government and in protecting human rights” and that respondents “cared about the health of democracy in the UK as much as about, for example, crime or immigration”.

3.2 British social attitudes survey

In September 2022, the National Centre for Social Research’s annual British social attitudes survey of 3,000 adults found that the constitution had become an “increased source of political division”. In a section entitled ‘Constitutional reform’, the survey report observed:

Conservative and Labour supporters have drawn apart from each other in their attitudes towards how the UK should be governed […] While 74% of Conservative identifiers think that the laws for England should continue to be made by Westminster as now, that view is shared by only 52% of Labour identifiers.

In addition to noting increased support in Scotland for Scottish independence and in Northern Ireland for Irish reunification, the survey report added that a majority of opposition party supporters now favoured changing the electoral system used for UK parliamentary elections. It said:

Support for introducing proportional representation in elections to the House of Commons is at its highest level since the survey began, primarily as a result of an increase in support among Labour party identifiers.

Around half of the public (51%) are now in favour of introducing proportional representation for Westminster elections, up from 27% in 2011 immediately following the alternative vote referendum.

For the first time a majority of Labour supporters (61%) are in favour of electing MPs using proportional representation (PR). At the time of the alternative vote referendum in 2011 only 27% held that view.

Now 69% of Liberal Democrat supporters are in favour of a switch to PR, up from 46% in 2011.

Conservative Party supporters remain in favour of the status quo—only 29% support changing the system.

The survey report also said that some remain voters “appear to have reacted to being on the losing side in the EU referendum [in 2016] by now wanting to change the rules under which the UK is governed”.

3.3 UK Constitution Monitoring Group report

In March 2023, the UK Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG) based at the Constitution Society alleged “ongoing problems with adherence to key constitutional standards in the UK”. In a report covering the period August to December 2022, it noted “almost 100 incidents of concern” over seven areas, including integrity in public life, constitutional change, elections, legislatures, ministers and the civil service, the territorial constitution, and the judiciary and the rule of law. These concerns included:

[…] the sacking of Tom Scholar, the rapid reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary following transgressions in the handling of confidential information, issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, issues surrounding the selection of prime ministers, inappropriate behaviour by the UK executive towards the House of Commons, and the behaviour of cabinet ministers in office.

In earlier reports the group claimed the UK constitution was “under increasing strain, threatening the quality and stability of our democracy” and that “existing checks and balances on ministerial power are proving insufficient, and that the government is intent on reducing them further”.

4. Political positions on UK democracy

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to “protect our democracy”. Among other measures, it said a Conservative government would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, update and equalise parliamentary boundaries, continue to support the first past the post system for elections, and introduce a requirement for identification to vote at polling stations. It added that a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission would examine constitutional issues such as “the relationship between the government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the royal prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people”. In December 2021, the government said it was progressing reviews “via a range of workstreams rather than a single commission to ensure all policy development is given the utmost consideration”.

In December 2022, the Labour Party published a report on the UK’s future produced by a commission chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown. The report identified a “loss of trust” and prescribed greater political decentralisation and a more defined role for a reformed second chamber in upholding the constitution. Speaking at the report’s launch, Labour leader Keir Starmer said the commission’s proposals would be subject to a public consultation and the Labour Party’s final plans for reform would be set out in its manifesto.

In their 2019 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats said their priorities for the UK’s political system included pursuing a “fair voting system so that everyone’s vote counts equally”, lowering the voting age for UK parliamentary elections, redistributing power away from Westminster and introducing a written constitution for a federal United Kingdom.

In its 2019 manifesto, the Green Party said the UK’s democracy had been “broken for a long time”. It added:

The first past the post voting system means that often more than half of all votes cast simply don’t count. The House of Lords gives power to people who have never been elected and our political representation doesn’t reflect the diversity and reality of the modern UK. We are one of the most centralised countries in Europe, with disproportionate power held at Westminster, and far too little in our regions and local authorities […] We want an active democracy in which we can all believe and trust. We think it’s time for every vote to always count and for citizens’ assemblies to develop a written people’s constitution and explore how as a country we can ensure the fair redistribution of power.

During the debate on the Queen’s Speech in May 2022, Baroness Jones tabled a regret motion to the humble address which she later did not move. This read:

At end to insert “but regret the failure of Her Majesty’s Government to provide for a constitutional convention to create a 21st century democracy where every vote counts; instead seeking to further concentrate power in the executive by weakening judicial oversight of government decisions and undermining the right to peaceful protest; and further regrets Her Majesty’s Government’s failure to provide safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum in the United Kingdom”.

The government had earlier said it had no plans for a UK-wide constitutional convention.

5. Read more

Cover image by Dominika Gregušová on Pexels.