A quick demonstration of how Nick Clegg has utterly lost his way. His long-promised House of Lords reform isn’t going to be anything of the sort:
The Government’s proposal to retain 12 reserved seats for Church of England Bishops would actually mean an increase proportionately of the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords. Keeping any reserved seats for the Bishops would be an affront to democracy and antithetical to the aims of a fairer and more egalitarian parliament, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has claimed.
The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out the Government’s plans in a statement to the House of Commons from 15.30 on Tuesday 17 May. The Government’s proposals include a significant reduction in membership of the chamber, from nearly 800 at present to 300, and between 80-100% elected and the remaining appointed. At present, 26 Bishops of the Church of England are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as of right; the only such example of clergy holding automatic membership of a legislature in a modern democracy.
Under current arrangements, Bishops make up 3% of the House of Lords. Under the Government’s proposals that would increase to 4%. Reducing the number of reserved seats for Bishops from 26 to 12 would actually increase their presence proportionately in the chamber.
This is palpably absurd. The Bishops represent the views of unaccountable organised religion and haven’t been voted for by anyone. They are an appalling anachronism in what now, more than ever, needs to be a modern parliament, bent on ever better representation and not privilege. The Bishops should not be there at all. It’s a good thing that the Deputy Prime Minister wants to transform the upper chamber into an elected body, but retaining an increased undemocratic element can’t be allowed to happen. I saw the word ‘religiophobe’ used on Twitter yesterday, and an even better definition:
Religiophobe: One who strives for the elimination of religious privilege in government and public service.
I couldn’t agree more. That’s a badge I’d wear with pride.
Well, Brits? Did you vote to improve the voting system, albeit shallowly and a hell of a lot less proportionately than the Lib Dems said they would stand for before the last election?
I know a lot of you didn’t and the polls are showing a near certain landslide vote against leaving First Past the Post, which has delivered a succession of unrepresentative governments since the year dot. But why would this be the case? I have a few suspicions:
- Contamination by Nick Clegg. The man (and his party) have become so fundamentally discredited in government, propping up the cuts-happy Tories (and particularly shattering higher education in Britain forever) that anything he wants will be hated by the public;
- The lies that the #No2AV campaign have spread have been believed by a gullible public, much of whom rely exclusively on the far right tabloids which dominate the British media. £250 million to implement AV? Bullshit – even New Labour throwback David Blunkett admitted the ‘No’ campaign has relied on a pack of lies;
- The electorate is scared of a system they’re told they don’t understand. Check this out though (via Anthony Smith’s blog):
How bloody difficult was that, eh? So we get back to the age old question: is an ingrained apathy leading to a broken politics, or are broken politics leading to apathy? Off of this I just can’t judge – why would a country which didn’t vote for David Cameron (or according to polls even want to tolerate) side with him in this? For that matter why is Cameron against it at all when he defeated David Davis for the Tory leadership through a form of AV?! Why should London not vote for it when they’ve benefited from it since 2000 in its Mayoral elections? It’s almost as if there are too many competing attitudes and narratives in play to motivate people with, and an accelerating disillusionment in any politics in the era of savage cuts.
I can’t deny should the vote be lost that I’ll be pretty fed up. After all the referendum is about creating a fairer voting system (and for those who bleat on endlessly about Vince Cable’s desire to use it to create a semi-permanent left-leaning electoral bloc in power, most people have never voted Tory ever) to reflect more closely the genuine wishes of the British people. We didn’t vote this appalling coalition in, and although AV would more likely end up with further coalitions (which under FPTP is going to keep happening anyway), they would less likely be overwhelmingly dominated and controlled by senior partners.
Finally I agree that the issue of how to get rid of incompetent/corrupt MPs should be high up the agenda, but that’s a separate issue. Fail to improve the voting system and watch an entire generation of young people walk away from parliamentary politics entirely, to the delight of the many MPs in safe (what a appalling idea) seats and, no doubt, the Metropolitan Police.
Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP attacks the mess all three main parties have got us into over the prospect:
The Conservatives don’t want to change the current system, and are allowing the referendum to shore up the coalition in the hope that the country will vote No. To them, AV is more acceptable than a genuinely proportional system because it minimises the risk of Ukip winning any seats at their expense. The Liberal Democrats have dropped STV, comforted by the fact that AV will benefit them more than anyone else. And Labour can drop its commitment to reform while blaming the government.
And it’s a joke. Labour went into the general election promising the alternative vote (AV) system at the very least in a referendum next year, the Lib Dems seemed pretty much fixated on STV as their price for entering any coalition and the Tories…the Tories of course are conservative and don’t like anyone messing with the status quo. Especially if it’s to their advantage. Now we have the Lib Dems abandoning all their core principles, the Tories trying to stab them in the back (with Clegg letting them know they can) and Labour using the debate to try to put them both on the back foot. It’s boring, it’s tedious and it’s robbing people of the enthusiasm which got sparked after the first televised election debate.
My own party, the Greens, supports the Additional Member System – a system which is more proportional but which maintains a constituency link. We’ll be deciding our position on AV at our forthcoming conference. But I believe that the most important priority is to give the public a real choice. Otherwise, people will remain cynical and disengaged. That is why I will be tabling an amendment in Parliament to rewrite the question to allow people to choose between AV, AMS, STV and the party list system, or to stick with first past the post.
And this I think is the issue. A referendum to decide on AV or not is a near-meaningless exercise. The chances of it being won are remote, the arguments behind voting reform are already getting lost once again, and the opportunities which were in our grasp last May could easily slip away, all because each of the main parties can’t see past their own short-term advantage. The broader argument over electoral reform should be available, with at least a major party articulating what the benefits would be to the political process itself. We continue to have the wrong people entering politics, and continuing to short up their professional careers and bank balances as the only regular outcome. That has to stop. AV won’t do it – Caroline Lucas is right, and her amendment should be given unconditional support. Maybe then we can return to political debate in this country rather than be led by the nose ever more by the Murdoch media and a still-supine BBC.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has asked us to tell him what laws need repealing:
He’s a brave man, I’ll give him that. But the answers are there in front of his face. Let’s start with the case of Jules Mattson:
On Saturday 26 June, photojournalist Jules Mattsson, who is a minor and was documenting the Armed Forces Day parade in Romford, was questioned and detained by a police officer after taking a photo of young cadets.
According to Mattsson, who spoke to BJP this morning, after taking the photo he was told by a police officer that he would need parental permission for his image. The photographer answered that, legally, he didn’t. While he tried to leave the scene to continue shooting, a second officer allegedly grabbed his arm to question him further.
According an audio recording of the incident, the police officer argued, at first, that it was illegal to take photographs of children, before adding that it was illegal to take images of army members, and, finally, of police officers. When asked under what legislation powers he was being stopped, the police officer said that Mattsson presented a threat under anti-terrorism laws. The photographer was pushed down on stairs and detained until the end of the parade and after the intervention of three other photographers.
Now I know Jules. He’s a good kid and a superb, passionate photographer, and this is is just appalling. Want proof? He recorded it:
The debate about the Metropolitan (and City) Police’s abuse of Section 44 has been waged many times and the arguments have been made more times than I can be bothered to think. But it’s now, once and for all, conclusively been ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights:
In January 2010 the European Court held that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power to stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights (Gillan and Quinton v. UK4158/05  ECHR 28 (12 January 2010)). The claimants received £500 each by way of compensation.
The European Court has now rejected the UK’s application to appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber, meaning that the decision is final. This leaves stop and search powers in further disarray. The Home Secretary has already announced an “urgent review” of the powers after the recent admission by the Home Office that thousands of individual searches had been conducted illegally.
It’s clear that Section 44 has to go, but the risk remains that Clegg uses this scheme either to get the country to vent about laws they don’t like, or simply to delete specific laws without confronting the trends and behaviours which led to them in the first place. The cops who attacked Jules Mattson didn’t just cite Section 44 to try to stop him taking perfectly lawful photos – they made all sorts of garbage up in order to intimidate him into not taking photos. There is an institutional prejudice within the ranks against photographers, which was channelled by Section 44, and which would be much harder to root out and stop. New Labour made it abundantly clear they didn’t care one iota about the Met’s excesses. Time will tell if Theresa May cares any more, and this is what I want Nick Clegg to understand and tackle, more than anything.
So this is the important bit in the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, promising a bright, new, un-authoritarian future, with:
Landmark legislation, from politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests.
Who stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few.
A spirit this government will draw on as we deliver our programme for political reform: a power revolution.
A fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that puts you in charge.
‘Much in this new Government statement accords with the BHA’s policies we set out in our own manifestos ahead of the election and with the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We particularly welcome moves to increase freedom of speech, and a reformed House of Lords which, by being fully elected, would necessarily remove the right of Bishops to sit in our second chamber.’
‘We also look forward to making our case for the repeal and revision of unjust, restrictive and discriminatory laws, such as those which require compulsory worship on our school children – a clear violation of their freedom of conscience – and those which unfairly restrict the right to free speech and protest.’
I think Copson is generally right but there are serious problems here. Clegg’s ideas are laudable, but there are as yet no indications as to how he thinks he’ll implement them – moving children of asylum seekers from one detention centre to another (particularly one with a notorious reputation) is not a remotely adequate solution. Much of the push towards ID cards came from within the civil service itself, and there is still an entrenched authoritarian culture in government agencies which needs urgent tackling; just yesterday the new government took the same stand on control orders as its predecessor.
I don’t just expect a repeal of New Labour’s surveillance state laws, I expect a change in culture to uphold the rule of law and to abide by evidence-based policy making. That means not just accepting the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on the National DNA Database, but abiding by rulings against denying prisoners the vote and on the legality of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. I’m worried that now in government Clegg is going to pick and choose what works for him and what doesn’t and not challenge the vested interests, defeat of whom really would make the “most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great enfranchisement of the 19th Century” much more than overexcited hyperbole.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg will create more than 100 peers to ensure that controversial legislation gets through Parliament.
The coalition government has agreed to reshape the House of Lords, which is currently dominated by Labour, to be “reflective of the vote” at the general election. That saw the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together get 59 per cent.
None of Labour’s 211 existing peers can be removed, so the coalition must appoint dozens of its own to rebalance the upper chamber. Lib Dem estimates suggest that the number of Tory peers would need to rise from 186 to 263 and Lib Dem peers from 72 to 167.
The first wave is expected soon, to enable additional ministerial appointments to take place, with further announcements within the parliament.
But the Lords isn’t supposed to reflect the popular vote in each election, surely? And when it’s elected in future by PR it won’t reflect the same sentiments as the House of Commons, so why should it do so now? I can understand the wish not to bring about the political deadlock which so paralyses the American political process, but this isn’t the way to do it. If there’s to be constitutional reform, even transitory reform, it can’t be a partial thing. For the parties promising it to be abusing it as long as they can get away with smacks of rank hypocrisy at the very least. The Lib Dems are good on so many other aspects of this challenge, that it’s surprising they should be happy with such shameless political gerrymandering. There’s nothing ‘new’ about these politics.
(pic from my Lewishamdreamer Flickr profile)
Clegg’s putting his money where his mouth is. Some of you don’t like it, but he’s read the political wind, seen now is the time for coalition government, which after all is what proportional representation would deliver, and pulled an extremely unlikely coalition off. If PR really is that important to you, you’ll appreciate that some coalition formulations will be distasteful, but are the will of the electorate. If Clegg had stood to one side he would have betrayed the entire basis for wanting electoral reform in the first place, and by leading by example he may yet prove to a sceptical electorate just how right the call for change in the voting system is.
Last week Jackie Ashley said:
I think he would be mad to engage in a full coalition, with cabinet seats and the rest of it. That would infuriate his activists and make him jointly responsible for Tory cuts. He needs to offer a deal from the outside, while he reviews the biggest mystery of the past election, which is why the Lib Dem poll bounce did not translate into any advance on the ground. It isn’t all the fault of the unfair electoral system.
And that’s the danger of course – that he gets tainted by being in power (particularly with such economically ruthless Tories) but there’s only so long the party can stand by and watch others take and use power, before they start looking a little pointless. It’s all well and good having noble policies and ideas, but it’s pointless if they aren’t used, which (sorry to say) means compromises have to be made. It’s undesirable but it’s the way of things, but Clegg clearly came to terms with that and decided to risk everything by moving his party back into government for the first time in three quarters of a century.
The electorate have shown that they will not be cowed by the media northe markets into voting for a particular outcome. Instead, they have sent a message that has confused everyone by its unfamiliarity. What can it all mean? Well, clearly they are not happy with the government as it is, nor are they convinced that the Tories offer something better. Instead they have voted for something different and sent the parties away to hammer out a consensus. Under a PR system, there would be a mandate for such an administration. It is only the familiarity of our current electoral arrangement that allows the media to treat the result as some terrible misunderstanding.
Clegg’s decided to show us what it would be like. And of course if he does provide ‘sound and stable government’ through this coalition, he’ll have made a better case to the British public for PR than any party political broadcast or policy document could ever hope to. By agreeing to a high-risk referendum on AV and perhaps hoping he’ll prove the case for PR by example he gets to play a high stakes poker game. On offer is genuine, lasting change to the political system itself; if he plays it wrong however the Lib Dems are essentially dead.
So Brown has finally done the honourable thing and offered his resignation as a price for coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He’s offered an immediate switch to AV via legislation, and a later referendum on STV. So shouldn’t the Lib Dems join him in a minority coalition? Erm no.
How can the Lib Dems possible ally themselves with the party which unrepentently ushered in our surveillance state? Right through to last week they were crowing about just how authoritarian they needed to be, ironically for a country they insisted wasn’t ‘broken’. Could Clegg work with Alan Johnson, who is still defying the European Court of Human Rights on his department’s abuse of the National DNA Database? And what about the Home Office’s defiance of the Court on prisoners’ voting rights? Could Clegg work with Prime Minister David Miliband, who is still defending the government’s right to torture, and trying to prevent us knowing about it? Could New Labour ever walk away from ID cards, given that its ID strategy for the 21st century depends entirely on them and the real problem – the identity register?
Would a New Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition repeal New Labour’s Digital Economy Act? Would they shut down the Independent Safeguarding Authority? How on earth could New Labour ever agree to any aspect of the Freedom Bill whatsoever? Given that there are no moves visible (yet?) showing the demise of New Labour, how could this coalition be better than one with the Tories? Don’t say have it be led by Nick Clegg because that’s just not going to happen, despite his popularity. Unless New Labour dies or the Tories offer AV+ for the Commons at the very least, I can’t see a coalition of any kind working, at least not without destroying the Lib Dems. Brown’s manoeuvre was super, no doubt timed by Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, but he really must not be the only stumbling block to working with the Labour Party.
I’ve been predicting for some time now that the outcome would be a @Conservative minority administration, and my view hasn’t changed one iota, whilst David Cameron and Nick Clegg discuss the notion of a coalition or at the very least a deal of some kind to allow a Tory minority administration to function at least past this summer. Marina Hyde adds some flavour to the current ‘negotiations’:
“I must make clear I would be willing to see any of the party leaders,” Brown wheedled, reminding us that he is above all a guy whose entire political career has been about the free and humble exchange of ideas with his peers, as opposed to an obsession with cleaving power to himself so monomaniacal that it would occupy an entire symposium of psychiatrists.
Meanwhile, Cameron enticed Clegg with “a big, open and comprehensive offer”. Even though the Tory leader thought the Lib Dems were cuckoo on everything from defence to Europe to immigration, and would rather staple his eyelids to the floor than give them PR (I paraphrase slightly), they totally had stuff like the pupil premium in common. What could possibly go wrong?
Brown will resign within the next week. I suspect he hasn’t done so already because he wants to time it for maximum effect in any negotiations he may try with the Lib Dems after they stop talking with the Tories (and they will). And this is where it gets impossible for Clegg – if he tries for a progressive majority with Labour, how could he do with with the thoroughly discredited Brown? And even though the electorate don’t vote for the leader, how could such a still-minority coalition have any legitimacy with a leader who hadn’t been in place for the election? Much of the result must surely have been down to the electorate’s disgust at the way Brown was imposed on the British people, even on the Labour Party itself.
A further complication though must surely be the gulf between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. How on earth could the party demanding PR and the Freedom Bill, which would abolish Labour’s authoritarian project, ever work with the architects of it? Brown, both Milibands, Jack Straw, Harriet Harperson, Ed Balls, you name it – every last one of their names are wedded to state surveillance and control by police and database (one Miliband is an apologist for torture, but we’ll get to that should he become party leader). Not only can’t I imagine Clegg being able to do business with them, but I can’t imagine any of them willingly rolling back their nigh-fascist, corporate-friendly agenda for him. Either they look embarrassingly weak by doing Clegg’s bidding, or Clegg destroys all his popular support by not demanding the Freedom Bill as a precondition of doing business with them.
So David Miliband as Leader of the Opposition by the summer, a Cameron minority administration within a week, and real political paralysis continuing continuing into the distance because of an absence of any parliamentary, electoral or constitutional reform taking place. We need PR, a fully elected Upper House in parliament, strict term limits (ending the ‘wash-up’ period), but we also need an end to professional politicians, making careers out of gaining and retaining power, and not working for the best interests of the electorate. Until the two of the main parties at least start talking seriously about Iraq, Afghanistan, social housing, climate change and a Robin Hood tax at the very least, and an end to ID cards, the ISA, the Digital Economy Act, abuse of the National DNA Database, and markets in state health and education provision, we’re all screwed.
Roy Hattersley is right. We can say ‘good riddance’ to this disgrace of a parliament, after the expenses scandal, cash-for-lobbying, the undemocratic railroading of the Digital Economy Bill and so many other deliberate failures:
Events in the House of Commons are to blame. Even in the golden age of Gladstone and Disraeli, Members of Parliament were unpopular. Today they are held in contempt. The one hope for this year’s place in political history is that it will mark a turning point — the year when the rehabilitation of democracy began. Perhaps things had to get this bad before they got better.
The superficial explanation for the voters’ antipathy to politicians is summed up in one damning word: corruption. It is impossible — believe me, I have tried — to convince the general public of the basic truth that we have a fundamentally honest Parliament and most of its members are men and women of principle. But the expenses scandal and the humiliating television pictures of former ministers touting for work were regarded only as confirmation of what the people already knew. The past five years have reinforced the belief that politicians have no firm convictions. The question that overshadows all the parties is: “But what do they stand for?”
Easy: they stand for power, gaining it and retaining it at all costs, and New Labour has turned that into its entire raison d’etre. This is not what people want. Except with the voting system we have, where is the genuine pressure to force a tipping point? Hattersley thinks it’s already happened, but the signing of the Digital Economy Bill into law today suggests we’re far from one. When all parties are competing for a small number of floating voters in a very few marginal constituencies why should MPs care one iota what we think or want? The electorate wants a return to ideology, but even an unprecedentedly large social media campaign couldn’t bring that about. Labour dropped its commitment to a referendum on voting reform; the Tories have no interest in reform at all, so I personally have no idea at all where this corruption is going to end. The likeliest immediate outcome will be a growth in apathy and extremism long after this parliament, and these power-hungry, self-serving idiots will be to blame.
An explanation of what has begun today in parliament, in advance of the general election: a constitutional stitch-up of the highest order. Having already betrayed us by abusing their expenses system, they’re about to do so again by betraying the democratic system itself.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has unveiled New Labour’s five ‘key’ election pledges, repeating a scam they’ve tried in previous elections, and in this case completely missing the point:
Gordon Brown has unveiled Labour‘s key election pledges, promising a re-elected Labour government would help create a million skilled jobs, a state-funded citizens’ right to take antisocial offenders to court and “the largest set of constitutional reforms this country has ever seen”.
The Labour pledges, to be enshrined in a new pledge card, will be readily enforceable. The first of the five pledges is to secure economic recovery, halving the current £167bn budget deficit.
The second is to raise family living standards – with low mortgage rates, increased tax credits for families with young children, helping first-time buyers and relinking the state pension with earnings from 2012.
The third is to build a hi-tech economy through support for businesses and industry in creating a million new skilled jobs and the delivery of high-speed rail, a green investment bank and broadband access for all.
The fourth is to protect frontline investment in policing, schools, childcare and the NHS – with a new guarantee of cancer test results within a week.
The fifth pledge is to strengthen fairness in communities through controlled immigration, guarantees of education, apprenticeships and jobs for young people and a crackdown on antisocial behaviour – with victims entitled to take out civil injunctions, funded by the local public authority, if the police are not taking action within a set time.
His hubris is unbelievable. ‘Securing’ economic recovery? Try massive slashing of public spending (which Alistair Darling this week admitted will be ‘worse than Thatcher’), instead of a Robin Hood tax. Raising family living standards? Well that’s fine, but will there be a high pay commission, to help stop the unprecedented acceleration of the rich and super rich away from the poor? He offers a ‘high-tech’ economy, yet whilst promising broadband access for all is ramming through draconian legislation which would take it right back again. Where’s the environment in this, and for that matter why not a green New Deal to transform our economy, which would prove to developing countries like China and India that cuts we demand of them are actually achievable and desirable?
Brown promises to ‘protect frontline investment’ in public services, yet throughout his tenures as Chancellor and Prime Minister has failed to grasp that throwing money at public services has only solved half the problem. And he fails to mention the horrific spending cuts he’s imposing on universities, which will destroy his party’s pledge to get 50% of young people into higher education, and gut existing services. I’m not going to dignify pledge five with much time. Talk about playing to the BNP. And what about making a pledge against poverty, what about enforcing minimum pricing on alcohol, and what about actually pledging what the government should be pledging?
They could apologise for their authoritarian experiment, for the attacks on photographers and demonisation of protesters, or promise to protect civil liberties and the rule of law. They could pledge not to force people to prove (at their cost) they aren’t paedophiles in order merely to get work. They could kill Trident, the ID cards programme, abide by the European Court’s ruling on the DNA database, abandon the Digital Economy Bill or offer a more proportional voting system. Notably none of these things is even hinted at. At the Progressive London conference in February Harriet Harman was pointedly asked to name a single new progressive policy which New Labour could offer to renew people’s engagement in politics; she refused. They’re still refusing and will pay a heavy electoral price.
Polly Toynbee makes an excellent case for making the general election all about reforming the voting system. Shame it won’t happen:
With a chance of a hung parliament, a Labour party sincerely committed to reform – not merely putting up a show bill it knew would fall – will be considerably more attractive to the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives will never relinquish first-past-the-post, and Cameron couldn’t get such a change past his MPs if he tried. But he might consider that a referendum already on the statute book makes a deal with the Lib Dems easier. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, must stand his ground and demand full proportional representation without fearing that it makes him look self-interested. It’s the only hope on the horizon for political change. Conservatives had better stop warning that coalitions cause dangerous financial indecision: on the contrary, across Europe coalitions have created most financial stability with the broadest public agreement. Greece and Britain (with its IMF and ERM crises) are the ones with “strong” one party government.
Voting reform does mean turbulence and uncertainty for Labour, but most Labour MPs swallowed hard and voted for it, knowing that we can’t go on like this. It was a moment when Labour threw off some of its worst tribalism and opened the window to co-operation with others. Brown was accused of cynical positioning, but he can prove he is a serious reformer by making this his fight to the end, even at cost of losing other good bills. This is his legacy moment.
And it is a shame it won’t happen – a shame for all parties. I sincerely believe they’ve all underestimated the fury which remains out there about the expenses scandal, and of the political price which needs to be paid for that. But the thing is that there’s noone out there making the case for electoral reform to stop that sort of easy corruption happening again. Rather there is – pressure groups like Vote for a Change are doing sterling work – but the media on the whole are ignoring them, and there’s an easy case to be made in saying that it was the House of Commons’ traditions and culture which led directly to the expenses scandal; PR might never have made a difference. I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not hearing that one at all…
What someone needs to do is to show how stronger government (as Polly points out in her comments about Greece and Britain) does come from PR – Germany for example successfully absorbed a failed state after less than 30 years using PR; Britain in contrast has all three main parties now largely undifferentiated from one another, all offering a variation on a theme which noone even wants. Point out that discrepancy and see if electoral reform suddenly races up the list of priorities. Until then this will remain an idealistic article, which will fall on deaf ears.
The Tories would have you believe that they’re interested in change, but the biggest stumbling block to MPs behaving better and actually representing people better is the first-past-the-post electoral system. David Cameron really wants to be Prime Minister by convincing the electorate that the Tories can deliver Obama-style change (and look just how much change he’s really brought in), but leaving the voting system unchanged will just continue to mean the same false priorities being chased: accommodating the poll-based whims of floating voters in marginal seats. It’s caused the rise of the BNP, it’s been at the root of the expenses scandal and has allowed New Labour’s surveillance agenda to pass through the Commons with barely a murmur. So if you feel ‘Dave’ is a better choice than so-called ‘bully’ Brown, just think about what change is actually needed before anything else. Get the right people in first or you might as well just not bother.
So the man styling himself as our next Prime Minister thinks that modernising our voting system is ‘crazy’. I think it’s quite revealing that he believes that a system genuinely representative of the people’s wishes (or in AV+’s case more representative) is a bad thing. Apparently the people must ‘feel like this is their parliament’, but actually making it more their parliament is out of the question. Cheers Dave, but the only way it can worry about what I worry about is if it represents me better than it does now. My MP is Joan Ruddock, who because she controls a safe Labour (or in her case New Labour) seat doesn’t have to represent my wishes at all; first-past-the-post sees to that. I’ve even debated my wishes with her, and she didn’t want to know; why should she? There’s no constitutional mechanism to make her. Cameron is right when he champions select committees to increase accountability within parliament – no question – but that can only be part of wider constitutional reform which includes a more proportional voting system. And the Commons should have more control over its timetable – the legislature genuinely does need its powers ramped up against the now almighty executive, but if the legislature doesn’t represent the people’s wishes better than it already does, that’ll only do so much good. If the new parliament’s concerns go no further than continuing to placate swing voters in marginal seats, noone’ll notice much difference. Willie Sullivan from Vote for a Change said:
“Under our current system, a nation of 45 million voters will leave it to a quarter of a million in the marginals to decide the outcome of the next election.
“It’s the equivalent of letting only people who live in Brighton decide the government of the United Kingdom. The question of who runs Britain is all our business, and for that we need a vote that really counts.
“Polls have shown time and again that people are prepared to break with the past.
“MPs can stick their fingers in their ears and pretend its business as usual, or they can help make 2010 the last broken election.”
It’s a great illustration of the representational failure at the heart of first-past-the-post. Intriguingly for the post-Brown era beginning in May, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said:
“We’ve still got a 19th century political system trying to address 20th century problems and in my book the whole system – the election to the Commons, the Lords, local government and how it’s organised, fixed terms parliaments – they should all be on a ballot.
“We should have what I would call a reset referendum that would reset the political system in a way that can actually address modern problems by getting power where it belongs, by checking power at the right places, by giving more rights and making sure rights of the individual are safe-guarded.”
Frustratingly though, other members of the parliamentary Labour Party don’t get it:
Labour former minister Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South, raised laughter as he asked Straw: “Do you attribute the stainless reputation of Italian politicians to the fact that they have proportional representation?”
Of course PR (which wrongly isn’t on the table for this referendum) hasn’t saved Italian politics from total dysfunction, but the reasons for that aren’t down to the voting system. Take a look at Germany, which is also governed by a PR system. Their system has been a model for the Western world since 1949 – fairly representing the people has allowed them successfully to absorb a failed state (the GDR), their 5% representational threshold for parliament has made it hard for extreme parties to get into the Bundestag in the first place, and even when they’ve made it that far they’ve always fizzled out. Coalition politics and a culture of compromise has brought about remarkable stability, not to mention the necessary diversity into Germany politics. Britain, with first-past-the-post, has descended into complete ambivalence, and why not, when our elected representatives do whatever it takes to retain power, not to fulfill their side of the political contract?
The House of Commons voted 365-187 for a referendum on AV+ after the election, but it remains unclear if the bill will get passed before the general election in May.