Putative new Prime Minister David Cameron wants the electorate to think he offers Obama-style change (and look what happened there). Thoroughly disillusioned with New Labour, desperate for the change which Blair and Brown never delivered, the polls show the electorate thinks ‘Dave”s probably better choice; they’re not quite sure but they’re going to take the risk because he offers something genuinely new. They’re wrong:
After thirteen years of government, at least twelve in dedicated opposition to electoral reform, and just ninety days before a general election, he’s [Brown] suddenly decided to change the voting system.
But leave aside the cynicism of this move. Is it the right thing to do? I emphatically believe it’s not.
One of the things that works in our current system is that a general election gives people the power to get rid of tired, useless and divided governments like the one we have today.
The truth is that people don’t want a new voting system – they want a new politics.
They want change across our entire political system – the way it’s run, the people who run it, where power lies, and how much it costs.
That’s why next Tuesday, instead of Labour’s fiddling with the voting system, we will table an amendment cutting the size of the House of Commons and the cost of politics.
We will call for a ten per cent reduction in the number of MPs. And we will call for a change in the boundary commission with a view to levelling up the size of all our constituencies so that every vote weighs the same.
Cutting the cost and size of the House of Commons will address the symptoms of what has gone wrong in our politics, but we need to address the causes too.
People are fed up of feeling that Parliament is a powerless poodle, that politicians cannot change things, and that power is always being drained away from them.
Of course there are a number of arguments he’s making, whilst attempting to conflate them into one. People are fed up with the centralisation of politics, from the increasingly insidious database state through to the inefficient centralised control of the public services, people are indeed fed up that power is being drained away from them. Parliament is supposed to be the instrument through which the people have their say, yet the executive under Blair (and no less so under Brown) has become almighty – still prepared to sidestep the parliamentary process, still eager to put through Extradition Acts without a vote, and still eager to rig control of select committees. Who needs oversight after all, when you know you’re right? I’ll look at that in another blog post later today.
But Cameron’s argument is also self-serving – he suggests the failures of the political system are technocratic – save a little money here, cut the number of MPs there, manage the Commons a little better. It makes sense for him not to investigate the system’s failings too much when ultimate power is in his reach, but he wilfully ignores the fact that the voting system is unrepresentative of the people’s wishes. Merely cutting the cost and size of the Commons won’t address the fundamental problem of first-past-the-post drawing the wrong people in, and forcing them because of electoral arithmetic to ignore the wishes of the majority, instead catering only to a small number of floating voters in marginal constituencies. Making the intake into the Commons more representative must be the first of a number of steps to reengage the political system with the electorate – people realise that being able to change governments every 4-5 years isn’t enough, that there’s no other way to hold MPs to account, and that MPs in ‘safe’ seats needn’t invariably worry about their jobs at all; why should anyone other than their supporters bother to vote in such constituencies anyway? A genuinely proportional system would address this democratic deficit, and despite the normal complaints about countries such as Italy showing PR doesn’t work, the truth is for every Italy we have a Germany, which successfully absorbed a failed state without either the system falling apart or even significant social unrest.
Would a more proportional system allow the BNP into Westminster? Sure, probably. But if those are the wishes of the majority then that’s fine. We’ve seen throughout the world too though that when extremists enter a democratically elected lower house in a stable system with checks, balances and a free media, that they invariably fall away; Germany’s proven that too. So Nick Griffin would become an MP – so what? The number of Green MPs would impress everyone, and provide the backbone for healthy coalition governments of the future. That would change the entire tone of British politics, and how they’re conducted – that’s real change. Would AV+ address this current democratic deficit? In the first instance probably not, but pulling off AV+ would show the electorate that changing the voting system wouldn’t bring the damnation and ruin which Cameron and others have suggested. It may not be a talking point on doorsteps, but that’s never how progressive politics should be run. Our leaders must voluntarily relinquish power back to the people in order to stop the slide which has begun under New Labour. Cameron does appreciate this, but isn’t prepared to put his money where his mouth is for half the argument.
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