The UK and Russia: how to end the paralysis

Rather than approaching our relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this web of irritants and seek a deeper arrangement.

In recent months, British-Russian relations have become increasingly fraught. The cultural divide, at least between their governments, grows ever clearer. For Britain, fresh from celebrating the passage of gay marriage, but now reeling at Russia’s recent laws against "promoting" homosexuality, it’s clear that an alignment of cultural values is not a realistic goal.

But in a new book out this week, post-Soviet scholar Robert Legvold argues that the UK (and Europe) has to aim for a better relationship with the country. This connection should not be based on case-by-case provisions for mutual interests, but on a deeper and more beneficial arrangement.

Rather than approaching a relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this "web of irritants, only loosely related to vital national interests, which has ensnared ties between two countries," Legvold writes. Vital national interests certainly lie beneath the surface of the fractious relationship between Russia and Europe and, in the UK’s case, trade has taken a turn for the worse. In 2011, Russia accounted for just 1% more than in 2001, while the UK slid out of the top 10 of the country's trading partners, and now represents less than 3% of Russian trade.

Legvold uses the analogy of Russian dolls to suggest that the bilateral UK-Russia connection sits inside that between Russia and the EU, Russia and NATO, and the US and Russia. The problem, he argues, is the missing doll: the Euro-Atlantic security community that American, European and Russian leaders have regularly promised us since the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The formation of this group could effectively meet the real security threats that they all face; military cooperation, rather than competition, would go a long way to causing much of what mars the other three dolls to disappear.

The UK and Russia’s relationship has been made particularly complex by events such as the Iraq war and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, and the "special relationship" with the US has left Britain an "unhappy outlier" among European states. As Legvold suggests, while the UK’s role in Russia diminishes, energy continues to constitute the heart of the EU-Russia relationship, and when it comes to centrepieces, Germany and the EU commission "control the action". Ultimately, though, the NATO-US dimension of the UK-Russia relationship "creates its deep underpinning".

From Russia’s nuclear choices to its energy and climate change policy, (it is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas) the stakes are high. But the two largest issues, argues Legvold, are transforming the "broader Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia, into a real, working security community, from cyber-warfare to health pandemics". 

It is down to Britain, he concludes, to "help break the lethargy and paralysis that has left the Euro-Atlantic world pinned under the detritus of the cold war" and "dismantle the barriers that prevent progress on the hard, practical issues on the agenda." Despite David Miliband’s assurance during his 2009 Moscow visit that he was there "to talk, not growl", the UK’s relationship with Russia, both in its own right and as part of the EU, is more Russian bear than Russian doll. Whether or not it can evolve in the way proposed by Legvold remains to be seen.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR. Influencing Tomorrow, by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP & Dr Ian Kearns, is published on 7 November 2013 and is available from Guardian Bookshop

Vladimir Putin welcomes David Cameron during the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.