“Partygate” and Democratic Accountability

January 25, 2022

In a functioning democracy, the state represents the public will. Representatives follow the rule of law, and exercise transparency and accountability. The state’s powers are so extensive as to only be trusted in the hands of those who embody the informed choices of the public. The instant our leaders hide behind opaque bureaucratic processes, lie to manipulate the public, or put themselves above the rule of law, democracy is in jeopardy. Once leaders demonstrate a lack of respect for democratic accountability, nothing they do is trustworthy. In these moments, the public needs to remember that their government works for them, and remind their leaders that true democracy means accepting nothing less than honest, transparent and accountable governance.

The UK has been existing in such a moment for years now, and yet as the scandals continue, accountability is nowhere to be found.

The sheer number of scandals churning out of this government on a weekly basis is eye-watering. More than that, it inundates the public with upsetting information, causing a sensory overload effect that lasts until the next scandal breaks and the cycle repeats. Reminiscent of Donald Trump’s never-ending string of scandals during his time in the White House, the scandal floodgates are open and the public can’t keep up.

The current UK administration is currently mired in “Partygate“, referring to a string of large gatherings held during COVID-19 lockdown while the rest of the country was isolating. Sue Gray is expected to release a report shortly and the Metropolitan police is now involved with investigations as well. This is by no means the first major scandal under this administration. To list a few other highlights from just the past couple of years:

  • The PM’s prorogation of Parliament in 2019, ruled to be unlawful and viewed by many as an attempt to avoid scrutiny before the UK’s exit from the European Union.
  • Dominic Cummings scandal, in which the PM’s (then) Chief Strategist also broke COVID restrictions
  • Priti Pratel, the Home Secretary, was accused of breaking ministerial code.
  • Covid Contract Cronyism, in which former Health Secretary Matt Hancock was ruled to have acted unlawfully in giving out PPE contracts.
  • Matt Hancock’s public affair in violation of social distancing guidelines, which the PM publicly forgave him for.
  • Owen Paterson MP resigned after the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards published a report which found him guilty of violating paid advocacy rules.

Consistently, this Government has obfuscated, lied and deflected in order to maintain power without addressing the fact that they broke the rules. They place themselves above the rule of law and therefore above the public, eschewing the fundamental democratic idea that the government works for the people. These scandals impede important conversations about policy and governance. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Trump’s politics in the states, in which lies, obfuscation and distraction techniques were constantly deployed to detract from obvious unlawful behaviour that in previous years would be career-ending.

The problems we’re facing are much deeper than the personal scandals of our representatives. Their lack of accountability mirrors larger trends in UK politics. Creating a more democratic political culture of accountability, transparency, and good governance will necessitate contending with these issues.

For one thing, British politics is becoming “Americanised“, with large shadowy campaign donations playing an increasingly central role. As Stephen Kinnock MP, the Chair of the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, notes: “That is a very dangerous place to be. We have been complacent about our democracy. We thought it would just look after itself.” Liam Byrne MP, in parliamentary debate over the Elections Bill, emphasised the importance of “clean[ing] up the laundromat of British politics, which is now awash with dark money from dubious sources”. Deidre Brock MP, in the same debate, brought up Unincorporated Associations, which “can be set up with the sole purpose of siphoning money to political campaigns” without scrutiny. The Committee on Standards in Public Life acknowledged the importance of contending with dark money in their report on regulating election finance, and yet the Government’s Elections Bill makes no attempt to address this issue. Dark money calls the accountability of our representatives into question because we don’t know where all of their funding came from and what political priorities may be associated with huge and underhanded influxes of cash into their campaigns.

Disinformation, conspiracy theories, and digital platforms inability to regulate themselves plays a role here as well, much as it did in Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Creating chaos and undermining trust, shady actors have used conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the Great Replacement theory, as well as disinformation about democratic systems and political issues like climate change and vaccines, to undermine trust and entrench extremist viewpoints that often skew into the anti-democratic. The Cambridge Analytica scandal saw political campaigns deploy big-data analysis to target digital platform users and manipulate them into voting a certain way. Data-harvesting and targeting allows campaigns to send tailored messages to specific groups, obfuscating the campaign’s real intentions and allowing them to pretend to be whoever they need to be to win a vote. This also calls accountability into question, because again, the priorities of the campaign and the representative don’t have to align with what the public actually wants, but what they’re told through micro-targeted advertising. This is why we’re working on the Online Safety Bill and encouraging a systems approach to digital platform regulation that will stop legal but harmful content from manipulating the public will with targeted half-truths and lies. For more reading about this incredibly pertinent phenomenon, check out Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism and Kyle Taylor’s Little Black Book of Data and Democracy.

A myriad of other problems have been pointed out as well, including our First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system that enshrines minority rule and suppresses political diversity, the lack of power and independence given to our elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, the rise in corporate power over government, and much more.

British politics desperately needs large-scale electoral and digital reform to solve these problems. Strong proposals exist for proportional representation, votes at 16, automatic voter registration, and more, yet constantly get shut down in Parliament. There is some hope for a decent Online Safety Bill assuming the Joint Committee on the bill’s recommendations are heeded. On the whole though, this government is putting forward a number of bills that, just like their personal conduct, are unprincipled, undemocratic and unethical.

While the government suffered amendment defeats in the House of Lords to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which threatened to crack down on the democratic right to protest, the Elections Bill made it through the Commons with all of its dangerous provisions in tact. This bill moves us further away from where we need to be heading. Voter ID, partisan control of the Electoral Commission, restrictions on third party campaigning, expansion of FPTP voting are not solutions to any of our problems, but new problems in and of themselves.

The Elections Bill does not address the serious challenges facing our democracy because this government does not care about fairness, accountability, or the rule of law. It is trying to entrench its own power and enshrine minority rule by making it harder to vote and undermining electoral enforcement mechanisms. Instead of focusing on the individual scandals of this administration and inundating ourselves with outrage to their benefit, we need to fight for real electoral reform and digital platform regulation. Our democracy is in a truly precarious place. Join us in fighting for its future.

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