Saturday, 9 May 2015

On the campaign for electoral reform: "I didn't vote for these cuts".

"Two very different ideas are usually confounded under the name democracy. The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practised is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented. The former is synonymous with the equality of all citizens; the latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege, in favour of the numerical majority, who alone possess practically any voice in the State. This is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, to the complete disfranchisement of minorities." 
-John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861

The 2015 general election... I'm still struggling to find words that really convey how I'm feeling, having watched with increasing despondency as the results rolled in and the Conservative seats went up and up. None of the opinion polls from the past few months indicated that we were headed for a Conservative majority, and there is a definite mood of pure dread at what the election result will mean for vulnerable people who have already borne 5 years of devastating austerity measures. 

There are some messages of hope, however. Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, was re-elected with a massively increased majority. All over the UK, the Greens' share of the vote has surged upwards, with us coming second in more seats than ever before and sending a clear message to the establishment that people are not happy with the status quo and that the First Past the Post voting system needs to go. 

The Tories may have a majority this time, but it is a much smaller majority than the last government, with 331 seats compared to the 363 seats that made up the Coalition Government which formed after the 2010 election (306 Conservative, 57 Liberal Democrats). When you factor in the enormous increase in the presence of the SNP, who now have 56 MPs (up from their previous number of 6), a different picture of parliament emerges. There is now a much stronger - much needed - anti-austerity presence in parliament than ever before.

It is an indictment of our outdated voting system that we once again have a Prime Minister and a government controlled by a party whom two-thirds of voters didn't elect. If we include the number of people who didn't vote at all, the Conservative vote share drops to less than a quarter

More than 75% of registered UK voters didn't vote for a Conservative MP, and yet because of the First Past the Post system, 100% of people living in the UK will have to live under Conservative policies. 

Realising that little point has gone some way to restoring my faith in British people rather a lot, having spent a reasonable amount of the past couple of days wondering how on earth so many could vote for a party who have overseen such horrendous consequences of the austerity agenda, and an abject failure to have achieved their own goal of reducing national debt and eradicating the budget deficit in the process. 

On my way to the People's Assembly "No More Austerity" demo, June 2014
To briefly address those who may counter by saying that the call for electoral reform is because lefties are sore losers, I'd just like to point out that moving away from First Past the Post is something supported by a vast range of parties, and that the biggest gains would potentially be for UKIP - a far-right party! In actual fact, a move towards a more representative voting system would benefit everyone in the country. 

Whilst I may abhor UKIP's exploitation of xenophobia and discrimination against migrants to further their anti-EU agenda, the fact is that people vote for them. In fact, almost 4million people voted for them this Thursday, but the FPtP system yielded just one UKIP MP. Furthermore, because MPs are only permitted to respond to issues from people living in their own constituency, it is only the 19,642 people living in Clacton who voted for Douglas Carswell who will be directly represented in parliament. Likewise, while the Green Party secured over 1million votes, only the 22,871 who elected Caroline Lucas as MP for Brighton Pavilion will be able to contact her, while the remaining 1,134,742 Green voters in England and Wales are effectively left unrepresented. 

Photo from Another Angry Voice on Facebook

An electoral system which leaves 98% of voters with no representation in parliament for their preferred party is simply not fit for purpose, and people all over the UK are waking up to this fact. 

So how do we change things? Moving to a system of proportional representation (PR) would be one step, because it broadens the pool from which votes are counted so instead of electing one MP per constituency, seats in parliament would be drawn from a much larger pool and allocated according to shares of the overall vote. Depending on how this is organised, this would mean that votes in Brighton are counted alongside votes in Sunderland and that no voter is left unrepresented in the way they are now. 

If we pooled all the votes from the UK and allocated the 650 seats in Parliament using the D'Hondt method of PR (as is used in the European elections), the make-up of the House of Commons would look like this:

If we pool all the votes across the nation to allocate seats, how do we then decide which candidates actually take up those seats? Without constituency MPs (which isn't compatible with PR), how do we ensure that there is a strong link between voters, local government and their representatives in Westminster? There's a few different ways of doing this:
  • by country - group the votes together for Scotland, then England, then Wales and then Northern Ireland, and allocate seats accordingly
  • by region - as in the European elections - East Midlands, East of England, LondonNorth East EnglandNorth West EnglandSouth East EnglandSouth West EnglandWest MidlandsYorkshire andthe HumberScotlandWales, and Northern Ireland
  • by merging the current 650 constituencies into fewer but much larger constituencies
Each of these methods would require another step to decide which candidates takes up the seats won; the European elections use party lists, where the parties decide in advance a list of preference for the candidates, and seats are allocated in that order. This has many criticisms, not least that it should be down to the people to decide who their candidate is rather than being pre-selected by the party. Another Angry Voice author, Thomas Clark, has summed this up and suggested an alternative in his blog HERE.

When you change how MPs are elected, inevitably the local link to parliament is compromised. It is incredibly important for accountability and democracy that people feel that government is accessible, however, and so a move towards PR would have to go hand in hand with changes to how district, borough and town councils work. The most logical way to do this, would be to expand councils - have more councillors, devolve more power to councils and give them much more funding. Decisions should be made at the most local level possible, and that is something that the Coalition really undermined. 

My ideal electoral system would have fewer MPs, all elected by a form of PR; much more power and funding for local councils, with more councillors elected; reform of the role of MPs so they work more closely with councils to create a better flow between Westminster and local government; reform of how parliament operates, with the Prime Minister elected by MPs instead of automatically going to the leader of the party with most seats. 

If we can achieve this, and combine it with other steps such as capping donations to political parties, closer regulation of election spending, and establishing an independent regulatory body for press ethics, we could create a political system which is much fairer, more democratic, much more accessible - and actually represents the vast spectrum of political views across the nation.

All of this is possible. It's not a dream. Campaigning for proportional representation is one way that we can fight for the politics we deserve, but there are many other ways we can work together in the next 5 years against whatever nightmares the Conservatives plan to unleash. There will be demonstrations aplenty, community groups in need of volunteers, petitions to send to Westminster, social media to spread the word - and political parties you can join (*coff* *coff*).

We've had a day to feel glum about the election outcome. Now it's time to dust ourselves off, prop one another up and get out there to fight. 

Remember, 75% of adults in the UK didn't vote Conservative.

Actually we'd probably have even more because nobody would have to vote tactically!