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.
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.
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.
There will be a referendum after all, to replace Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which allows a party to become the government, even though a majority of voters have voted for someone else:
Jack Straw, the justice secretary, will introduce the change in an amendment to the constitutional renewal bill. This will amount to paving legislation for a referendum on whether to introduce AV, to be held no later than October 2011.
Ministers, who agreed the move at a meeting of the cabinet’s democratic renewal committee (DRC) yesterday, believe that the prospect of a referendum will have three key benefits. It will:
• Allow Labour to depict itself at the general election as the party of reform in response to the parliamentary expenses scandal.
• Make David Cameron look like a defender of the status quo. The Tories, who are opposed to abolishing the first-past-the-post system, would have to introduce fresh legislation to block the referendum if they win the election.
• Increase the chances that the Liberal Democrats will support Labour – or at least not support the Tories – if no party wins an overall majority at the election, resulting in a hung parliament. The Lib Dems have traditionally regarded the introduction of PR as their key demand in any coalition negotiations. While AV does not technically count as PR, many Lib Dems regard AV as a step in the right direction.
I’m not happy with the idea of AV, when AV isn’t really any more proportional than first-past-the-post. And it does look like a sickeningly cynical manoever, although if they manage to keep the referendum in place if/when they lose the election, it will indeed be quite an impressive achievement. Someone at least has understood that they have to present themselves as a party prepared to embrace change, but if this is as far as they’re prepared to go down that road then even then it doesn’t even count as a half measure. Britain’s surveillance culture is now completely out of control – we’re well down the road of everyone having to be checked so that they’re not a paedophile, merely in order to get a job. We’re in a time when photographers snapping a sunset are being stopped by police for fear of being terrorists, and when a government with a track record of screwing up databases reserves the right to hold on to your DNA, even if you are innocent of a crime. If they’re unprepared to think about tackling these terrible civil liberties and human rights abuses and are using a referendum promise to distract our attention, and to outflank the Tories for future electoral gain, then they really aren’t interested in change at all. I agree with Stephen Tall, who says:
Labour has had 12 years in which to renew the democratic fabric of this country. They failed to do anything about it because, quite simply, they didn’t care enough about it. If they care now, it is only because it’s expedient to; and expediency is the worst possible motive for reform.
The expenses scandal brought the political process to the brink of collapse, but Gordon Brown seems to think no legislative action is needed to restore the relationship between the electorate and our representatives. Sir Christopher Kelly, tasked with fixing the expenses system, argued:
fresh legislation would be needed to strengthen July’s Parliamentary Standards Act, which established the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). “It is disappointing therefore that the Queen’s speech did not contain measures to address the changes we believe to be necessary affecting the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses,” Kelly said.
Brown however disagrees:
Downing Street insisted the most dramatic changes to the MPs’ allowance system proposed by Kelly could be implemented without a parliamentary vote, and any further legislation required would be brought forward on a cross-party basis as and when it was needed.
Talk about kicking it into the long grass. Of course reform of the expenses system itself is only a part of the problem, and Brown completely ignored the need for electoral reform as well. His Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill might tinker with the House of Lords, would finally reform the abusive SOCPA legislation limiting the right to protest near Parliament, but there’s no word on a referendum to change the voting system – not even on the constitutional convention which would be needed in advance of a referendum. There’s a Citizen’s Convention Bill knocking around the Commons, but Brown prefers vague promises of a referendum after the election – great, but Cameron isn’t. And considering Blair and Brown kicked the Jenkins Report into touch after winning an unassailable majority in 1997, why should Brown even be trusted to deliver if he won?
Missing was the bill that was the one bold act that could have changed the argument at the next election: a referendum on proportional representation would have been a cause to bring back erstwhile Labour voters, leaving Cameron defending an indefensible system. Like Blair before him, Brown bottled it, too much the old tribalist for real reform – and Labour may come to regret that most bitterly of all.
The effect of electoral reform and a more proportional system, would be to create a different kind of parliament in a post expenses world, she claimed. “A more proportional system is more voter sensitive and more voter reactive system than we have at present.”
Of course she’s right but seems to have been overruled. Her boss clearly still doesn’t understand the severity of the problem which has happened on his watch, which he in large part was responsible for. He has an opportunity right now to clear it up or at least to put the building blocks together to show the electorate he understands their disengagement, but he’s completely bottled it. Again. The electorate is looking to MPs to show they understand that fundamental change is needed in the way the Commons does business, how it’s composed and how representative it is, but the Queen’s Speech doesn’t offer any change at all. Brown will lose the election, Cameron will flatly ignore any mention of a referendum, when he could have been put in a very difficult situation indeed by an election day referendum.
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.
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.