Democracy without general elections

Here’s an idea which has been in my mind for a while. It’s a tentative idea, and may not be a perfect idea. It is, however an idea, and one which I’ve not seen anyone else suggest. It might even be a good one.

Here in Britain, and in many other countries which aspire to democracy, we elect our government by the familiar process of a general election. That is, every few years we elect, en masse, a new set of MPs whom we hope will represent us. The leader of the party with most MPs more or less automatically ends up being Prime Minister, regardless of whether the’re acceptable to the majority of voters or not. A few years later, we go through the process again.

This seems democratic, but has a number of problems and is open to various abuses. For example:

  • Parties can say one thing before the election (e.g. “There will be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS”) in order to get elected, then do something entirely different once in power (e.g. radically reorganise the NHS).
  • Parliament can be suddenly flooded with inexperienced politicians who, though well-meaning, are clueless about how to organise anything sensibly and therefore govern chaotically.
  • The make-up of parliament depends heavily on when the election is. Even worse, the election date could until recently also be manipulated by the Prime Minister to try to stay in power.
  • I believe the election result also depends heavily on which issues are prominent in the news at the time of the election. These may not actually be issues which will be important for the next five years. They might even be no more than the latest tabloid misinformation.
  • Once you elect a government, you’re more or less guaranteed to be stuck with them for for or five years regardless of how incompetent or otherwise awful they turn out to be. Even if they do the precise opposite of what you voted for, they’re there until the next general election.

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

I’m not so sure. Here’s my tentative suggestion for an alternative which I think is at least as democratic and possibly more so. Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

Now, I’m sure there will be pitfalls with this. There are with any voting system. But think of the possible advantages:

  • An unpopular government can’t indefinitely use its majority to force through measures which nobody wants. As soon as it does that, it starts losing MPs, who are replaced by ones who better reflect the current will of the voters.
  • Parties can’t say one thing before the election then do something different after the election, since there is always an election coming up.
  • The makeup of parliament can’t be skewed by whatever happened to be in the news on the day of the general election, because there isn’t one. (Maybe the result of each constituency election can be skewed by the news of the day, but this would ideally just mean that a whole range of issues were represented in parliament. Not just the news of the day, but five years’ worth of news.)
  • There are always experienced MPs in parliament—or at least, ones with nearly five years’ experience.
  • No prime minister feels permanently safe. As soon as they start behaving unacceptably, their support wanes and they risk being replaced.
  • Election dates can’t be manipulated to favour one party rather than another.
  • As soon as an issue becomes important, it’s likely that an MP will be elected who is concerned with that issue.

I can see a couple of risks, though:

  • The responsiveness that I’m trying to bring to the system might turn into short-term obsession with the latest dubious poll. Some thought would need to be given as to whether this is indeed the case, and whether there’s a way to avoid it.
  • Although an unpopular government immediately starts losing MPs, losing enough of them to lose power takes time. There might be situations in which a government is governing so badly that it needs to be replaced quickly, and it could be that a general election is the only way to do that. My hope, though, is that the system would make it difficult for extreme governments to arise.

Anyway there it is. Whether such a system could be made workable or not, I think it deserves thinking about.

5 responses to “Democracy without general elections

  1. Certainly interesting, though I can’t help but think it would lend itself heavily to bipartisanship. Five MPs is a very small number! Though voting fatigue would become enormous and make the process less strictly ‘democratic’, perhaps that would counteract bipartisanship.

    • I think I can see the point about bipartisanship, but I’m not sure where voting fatigue comes in. You vote once every five years, when your local MP is one of the five up for election.

      What I think it does mean, though, is that election campaigns would have to be run locally rather than nationally, since you can’t really have a national election campaign every two weeks. And national news coverage can’t obsessively cover every tiny detail of every campaign. I hope that would lead to more sane reporting, but I can see disadvantages too.

      • Oh, I misunderstood that point! Voting fatigue wouldn’t really be a thing in such a system, no.

        It’s a shame there is no real way to mathematically model these kinds of things.

        • I’ve now clarified that point in the text. Basically my system involves perpetual by-elections.

          I think some efforts have been made to model the effects of different voting systems, but it seems to me that any system is just as likely to be undermined by something that isn’t in the model as by something that is. What goes wrong will most likely be something we’ve not thought of.

  2. Pingback: A democracy gamed from within needs to be ungamed: this is how »

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