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Reforming democracy - factional conflict

The issue of how individuals can be free when subject to political control, has long troubled republican writers, and is especially salient today. Following the UK’s General Election, many proclaimed a crisis of democracy, citing the imbalance between votes obtained and the level of representation within the government. The Conservatives obtained 36.9% of the national vote, and over 50% of the seats. UKIP gained 12.6% of the votes and only one seat.

Following the election, five party leaders united to add their signatures to a petition demanding a reform of the electoral system.

The concern here, from the perspective of political liberty, is that the disproportionate power wielded by groups within Westminster, subject individuals to control that they have not consented to (so, 73.1% of the electorate did not consent to a Tory government), and therefore we might conclude that they are unfree.

In what follows, I will offer a brief suggestion of how we might reform our institutions and electoral system to ensure that individuals are adequately represented, and therefore have consented to the control which they are subjected to by the government. In doing so, I will follow Niccolo Machiavelli’s claim that,

‘All legislature that serves Liberty is produced out of the conflict between the different orders of the state.’

Republican Thinkers

Rather than offer an exegesis of republican thinkers and their approach to factional conflict (References are included below for those interested in this), it is useful to note two currents which run through republican thought. One is associated with Cicero, and later informed Rousseau, James Madison, and contemporary republican thinkers. These writers all share an antipathy towards conflict and factions – they believe that political liberty is achieved in a society where political power is safeguarded for one subset, or faction, and providing that faction wields their authority within the appropriate constitutional limits, individuals are free.

The other strand of republicanism comes from Machiavelli, who argued in the Discourses on Livy, that freedom arose in societies where the different groups were empowered to challenge one another. Laws which were subject to the input of various factions ensured that individuals had an impact upon the laws that they were controlled by. He famously stated that,

‘To me those who condemn the tumults between the Nobles and the Plebs seem to be caviling at the very thing that was the primary cause of Rome’s retention of liberty…. And they do not realize that in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the people and that of the great men, and that all legislation favoring liberty is brought about by their dissension.’

This insight, that freedom is borne out of the conflict between society’s various factions, suggests a number of reforms which we could make to contemporary democracies, leading to freer and fairer societies.

Factional Democracy

Imagine a society in which one group determined all political policies and laws. Individuals who disagreed with the party’s action, and found that they were controlled in ways that they did not consent to, would be unfree. Now, imagine a second society populated by two factions, of roughly equal size and power. One group attempts to pass a law, which the other side makes revisions to. The law is subject to a number of amendments, and eventually passes into legislation. Here, I think, we would conclude that individuals are free, because what they want has had an impact upon how they’re controlled.

In contemporary politics, the first step to ensuring factions can contest political power, and ensure that all political activity is subject to popular control, would be the reform of the electoral system and campaign finances. A proportionally representative system, which transferred a faction’s share of the vote into a correlative share of seats, would ensure that groups are politically empowered to the extent that they enjoy popular support. Reforming campaign finances, perhaps through public funding or with much bigger caps on spending, would ensure that wealth did not have a disproportionate effect on political representation.

While this will go some way to ensuring that factions are empowered to contest for political power, it does not address the whole issue. We still have to be concerned about the composition of the cabinet, and the allocation of ministerial duties.

At the present time, the party with the largest share of seats is invited to form a government, with the party leader becoming the Prime Minister, and then appointing his own cabinet. Under a factional democracy, this would obviously be a problem. Suppose that the democracy had 6 parties, which shared their parliamentary seats in a ratio of 6:4:4:2:2:2. For the leader of the largest party to then assemble his own cabinet, ignoring that his party holds less than a third of the seats, would be impermissible.

Instead, we should look to produce a cabinet on the same principle of proportionality. This way, factions would be represented in the highest levels of government. When it comes to selecting the leader of the government, I think that the best approach would be for the Prime Minister to be the individual who could claim the support of the cabinet – representing the largest faction would not be sufficient, since that faction will still only represent a small proportion of the electorate’s preferences. The minister who could claim the support of a cross-faction group can plausibly claim to represent the interests of the governed.

Freedom through Conflict

With these measures, we can hope that all factions within society are empowered to propose and challenge legislation, ensuring that factional conflict determines the content of laws, and that all individuals can claim that their interests are respected in the formulation of governmental policy.

Political freedom would be ensured, then, through a democratic system where all factions would be able to contest for political authority. It is likely true that governments would be less stable, since they would not be able to force through whichever policies they wanted, but it would also be true that individuals’ interests would be represented in government, ensuring that they are not subject to the control of other groups. In this way, we can ensure that all legislation is produced by a conflict between society’s various orders, ensuring that all individuals remain free.


Cicero De Re Publica (St. Edmundburys Press Ltd: Surrey, 1928).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Penguin Classics: London, 1968).

James Madison, Federalist No. 10: “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, (New York Daily Advertiser: New York, 1787).

Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (University of Chicago Press: London, 1996).

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