Is Voting Reform Under Threat?

The impetus towards proportional is already slowing, now the furore over the expenses scandal has marginally died down, and Brown’s authority has waned. All the fine words expressed between the height of the scandal and the European parliamentary elections – were they all hot air, have they been drowned out by louder voices following the BNP’s election to two seats in Strasbourg? The problem I see is politicians from the progressive parties advocating reform, but without the authority needed to sound convincing. Clegg has been pushing hard for PR whilst campaigning strongly for the EU, Johnson and Ed Miliband have also for New Labour, but both parties were hammered in the EU elections and Johnson’s motivations are dubious to put it mildly. It’s no surprise that Tory leader David Cameron can get away with garbage like this:

Cameron told Brown that proportional representation had “massive drawbacks” as demonstrated in the election of two BNP candidates to the European parliament and pressed Brown to say whether he intended to hold a referendum on the issue prior to the next general election.

Cameron said: “In 12 years there has not been a squeak about electoral reform and now he has being trashed in the polls he wants to put it on the agenda.” He accused Brown of trying to “fix the rules”.

Whilst Brown can’t argue against the latter point, he certainly can against the first, but hasn’t. The election of the BNP isn’t a drawback to PR; the reasons for the success of the BNP are fundamentally because of the absence of meaningful representation in the political process. Extremism flourishes in a vaccuum. Tom Watson has changed his mind:

Vast swaths of working people in Britain now think parliament is irrelevant to them and their families. MP Jon Cruddas is right when he says that this is as much about policy as it is our democratic framework. But he is also right to say that we can no longer ignore the institutions of representation when it comes to re-engaging working people.

Our voting system is the source code of the power wielded by MPs. It bestows the authority of the people on their representatives. Yet few MPs can claim support from more than 50% of their electors. AV enables ­preference (ranked) voting, ensuring an MP can claim authority of a majority of their voters. AV also allows voters to protest – through the support of small and single-issue groups, while also choosing to support a larger party, if they so wish. Unlike some other voting systems, it allows the retention of a geographic link between MP and electors.

I think he puts it quite well when he says the ‘voting system is the source code of the power wielded by MPs’. Look at what first-past-the-post has brought us to – MPs on the take, a government waging illegal wars, using its police force to brutalise dissent. We don’t want a third runway at Heathrow? They ignore the local consultation and try to go ahead anyway. We want action against climate change? They collude with energy multinationals to suppress dissent. And the poor? The working class? Who is meeting their needs? When their needs aren’t represented in parliament it’s hardly surprising you’d get a spike in voting for extremism. Whilst it no doubt does represent significant, underlying racist attitudes, it’s also a successful means of getting attention. Yet with no PR available at Westminster their genuine needs – New Labour has completely abandoned the poor now in its quest to retain power – who is doing anything to stop the political drift to the far right? Linda Riordan argues:

Since the 19th century the first-past-the-post system has worked. The prevailing mood of the country takes its course under this system. For example, in 1945 a clear majority of voters wanted a Labour government. It gave it a clear mandate to govern.

Would Atlee have been able to carry out such popular post war reforms if we’d had an election under PR? Not at all. He would have been too busy doing back room deals with Liberals and Tories to keep them on board.

On the flip side, in 1979 the country wanted a change of government. And, as much as I detest the policies of Baroness Thatcher, the first-past-the-post system enabled the largest party to form a government.

First-past-the-post is democratic and provides stable government, a clear constituency link between MP and voter, a definite outcome, clear results and an easy to follow system.

It’s a lazy analysis of history and ignores the present reality – we are in a period where a prevailing economic model is driving society and the political process, where the reverse used to be true. First-past-the-post is next to useless under such conditions in providing democratic government and enabling the changes which are desperately needed to be carried out. She goes on to say PR is undemocratic – I argue that politics of compromise and cooperation is the exact opposite, and it’s the opposite of what we have now. It’s not surprising cynical opportunists like David Cameron would agree with her – in the absence of policies or ideology of his own he pretty much has no choice.

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One response to “Is Voting Reform Under Threat?

  1. Anthony Tuffin

    The impetus towards proportionality may or may not be slowing down, but the case for choice voting has never been stronger.

    Choice voting – listing candidates in order of choice – enables voters to choose not only between parties but also between other factors such as integrity which is highly relevant to the expenses scandal. It also allows supporters of mainstream parties transfer their votes, if their own party does not need them and if the voters wish, to other mainstream parties so BNP candidates are not elected on a minority of votes as they have been under First Past The Post in Stoke-on-Trent, Burley and elsewhere (so let’s not blame PR for the BNP’s two successes in the Eur0-election).

    If you combine choice voting and multi-member constituencies (when it is known as the Single Transferable Vote or STV, you get PR almost as a bonus spin-off but, perhaps more importantly, it then lets voters choose between candidates of the same party. For example, they could rank candidates in order of integrity and remove the less honourable without voting against their own party.

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