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.
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.
The only way this country is going to get on the right track once more is by changing the way we elect our MPs. First-past-the-post worked in an age where adversarial politics led to a certain degree of perceived stability, when class politics determined the electoral cycle and was the main determinant of how people voted. Those days are long gone, and we now live in a diverse country where the wishes of the majority are ignored in the quest for the floating voter in marginal seats. Apathy in ‘safe’ seats has become endemic, as the electorate realises there’s no point in voting, because their votes really don’t make a difference. We can change that by changing the system to reflect the wishes of the majority – oh you keep hearing the nonsensical attack stories, complaining the BNP would make it into Westminster, that we’d end up with coalition government. But look at Germany – absorbing an entire Communist east into a PR system in only a generation. Is Germany any less stable now than it was 20 years ago? They were run by monsters half a century ago – there isn’t even a hint of that now.
It’s great news that Vote for a Change’s Willie Sullivan has met with Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. Nothing may come from it right now, but the fact that the meeting has even taken place suggests the government is oh-so-slowly realising that the solution to the expenses scandal might very well rest with a referendum on the voting system. Brown may be finished come what may next summer, but he could well enable a system which could also make the Tories’ return far briefer than they would wish, at least governing alone; I think he knows this too. Will the timidest of Prime Ministers make a bold, last move? We can only hope. The future success of our democracy and our civil liberties could rest on it.
Last Friday Vote for a Change held a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in support of a more proportional voting system. The zombie theme was supposed to signify that our voting system is dead but going on anyway and destroying our democracy in the process. If you support a referendum for proportional representation to be introduced as the UK’s voting system click here.
Come back here from 1915 BST to see my liveblog of Vote for a Change’s debate at the Houses of Parliament tonight. One side will support reform to a more proportional voting system, the other will support the status quo – first past the post. Comments will be extremely welcome here and on the liveblog as I go, and if I figure it out in time you should be able to tweet to the liveblog too.
Should be lively, and should be interesting.
Vote for a Change’s Gravy Train is travelling between constituencies, to inform people about their campaign for a referendum to decide for us to decide how we choose our politicians, rather than leaving it to the politicians:
I think Sal Brinton is right when she says that our current voting system too often means MPs know they aren’t going to be thrown out by their constituencies if they don’t represent them adequately – it’s contrary to what democracy is supposed to be about and people are stopping voting because of it. We need to move to a proportional system of representation urgently to make every vote count. Call for a referendum here. You want it? Make it happen.
Oh and tell Vote for a Change here where you think the Gravy Train should visit next. Your constituency?
Vote for a Change have arranged a debate in Portcullis House next week between those advocating radical change and those supporting the first-past-the-post system.
It’s at 1930 on the 13th October. Click here to secure your seat!
Vernon Bogdanor claims three party politics is over, but that our first-past-the-post is masking our perception of it:
There has been a prodigious alteration in the public perception of parties, but it remains unnoticed because the electoral system fails to register it. The system refracts rather than reflects opinion, emphasising the major party vote and de-emphasising the vote for minor parties and independents. It enables Westminster to remain a closed shop, so allowing the major parties to postpone confronting the crucial question of how they are to regain their lost members and voters.
Fragmentation has already led to calls to open up the system. In 2007, Gordon Brown offered government posts to Liberal Democrats and to those of no party affiliation; and Labour seems to be edging towards a referendum on electoral reform. The Conservatives instituted an open primary in Totnes to replace Anthony Steen. To require the parties to hold primaries would open up candidate selection, while a more transparent electoral system would allow the Commons to reflect opinion more accurately.
I don’t agree with Bogdanor’s thesis about primaries. Whilst I think it would open up candidate selection, it would likely be within a perilously narrow band. I do agree though that the days of big party dominance are largely over. The nature of large parties is to appeal to a large demographic and to maintain a broad church of agreement, but this is clearly no longer appealing to large portions of the electorate, whose needs are falling through the cracks of this compromise – see the rise of the Greens, the sudden rise of the Pirate Party, and the historically high profile of the BNP. The reasons for the ‘broach church’ compromise being over are probably many, but chiefly in the UK right now it’s down to the failure of the first-past-the-post voting system. As the larger parties have competed for an ever smaller band of swing voters in order to get elected, they have largely walked away from conviction politics; Bogdanor is right – take a look at the membership of traditional parties and you’ll see that doesn’t suit the majority. Their choice is to allow a referendum on proportional representation to allow people’s interests represented as they are rather than how traditional parties would like them to be, which would allow them to find a new role in 21st century political life, or to continue to wither and die and be responsible for the total atrophying of British political life.
(image from Cartoon Life)
Open to visitors – but closed to voters.
That’ll be Parliament this weekend.
As part of the city wide Open House event, Westminster’s doors will be thrown open to the public on Saturday and Sunday.
But as you and I well know, our voices as citizens will remain largely shut out from the building.
Help us make some noise about that fact this Friday. Sign up now to join us at Westminster as we protest about Parliament being closed to democracy:
We’ll be gathering at 10:30 a.m. at the St. Stephen’s Gate entrance to raise awareness about the urgent need to give voters a say in our political system – right on Parliament’s doorstep.
Hope to see you on Friday for what should be a fun and fruitful event.
Vote for a Change
Reform of Britain’s upper house might have been a priority for New Labour in 1997, but as with many other important issues, they’re only just getting around to it. Justice Secretary Jack Straw now appears to acknowledge it’s time to elect our senators-in-all-but-name, but wants it to take a generation to happen:
Straw said: “All the parties are agreed that moving to an 80% or 100% elected house will take three parliaments. By definition you need not do 100% before arriving at an 80% threshold. Therefore it follows that reformers do not need to tie themselves in knots about whether the final destination is 80% or 100%. If we get to 80% that would be a major achievement.”
Reformers, who will have a chance to question Straw at the seminar, may express disappointment that the government is not endorsing a wholly elected chamber from the outset. The government has faced criticism for the slow pace of reform after the expulsion of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999.
The justice secretary will defend his decision to move at a measured pace for three reasons: it is right to try to build a consensus; his proposal keeps alive the prospect of a wholly elected upper house; and it will take time to introduce a complex electoral system.
Let me make this clear – I don’t believe 80% would be acceptable, and taking 15 years to do so would be beyond a joke. It sends out the message that the New Labour bigwigs who are about to lose their jobs want to feather their nests, and discredits the whole point of reform – democratising the political process. I believe the scrutinising chamber should be wholly elected by single transferable vote, but this brings up the other question – if it’s so important to reform the upper house of parliament, why is it then apparently unimportant once again to reform the House of Commons? The power of whips over the composition of select committees is still total, the executive is still using statutory instruments to get legislation passed over the heads of the legislature; there is next to no meaningful oversight over laws passed in our name. Oh and of course there’s the thorny issue of the voting system, which remains not at all representative, and forces confrontational politics to fight over a small pool of swing voters rather than actually offering the change the country needs.
Lords reform is important but nowhere near as important as reforming the voting system. Sign Vote for a Change’s referendum here if you want the chance to have your vote actually mean something.