On polling day, our democracy will fail spectacularly…

It really doesn’t matter what you think of Corbyn or May. All the manifestos, the (non) debates, the spin, vox pops and soundbites – all will have absolutely no effect. For in some two-thirds of constituencies the result is already known. Indeed, on the morning of 9 June, the returning officer will declare a Conservative as my own member of Parliament. I know this because for the last 67 years my constituency has always been Conservative regardless of who has the keys to number ten. Unless I vote Tory (and I most definitely will not), my vote will not matter.

Sadly, forgone conclusions like this make a mockery of our democracy. Unless you live in a marginal constituency, then you will have no influence on who forms our next government. But it’s even worse than that, for under our first past the post voting system, most of us will end up with a government that we didn’t want (no party since at least 1945 has ever won more than 50% of the popular vote).

Put another way, a relatively small number of swing voters, in a minority of parliamentary constituencies, will ensure 100% of the power goes to a party that is supported by less than half of those who voted. The winner will take it all; and democracy will have failed spectacularly.

Note: For information on proportional representation, please see Make Votes Matter and the Electoral Reform Society

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Under first past the post, it is swing voters in marginal seats that shape policy

In the referendum aftermath, we seem a more divided, more intolerant country.

Worse, we have seen Brexit legitimising and empowering anti-immigrant views, leading to a massive jump in hate crime across the country. We face an uncertain future, with more demons being unleashed once Brexit has failed to deliver a new era of well funded public services.

Yet just when a clear political response on the way forwards is needed, we learn that neither side in the referendum had any meaningful plan for a Leave win. Cameron, who history will blame for calling this referendum, has neatly passed the Brexit buck to whichever hard right Tory succeeds him. Meanwhile, the victorious Boris, out-manoeuvred by his supposed ally Michael Gove, has quit the Tory leadership race altogether.

So a golden opportunity for Labour you might think. But just when the Tories are at their most divided, so most of the PLP turn on their leader in what seems like a well-organised coup. Scared of their electoral chances, they believe that a principled socialist and experienced politician is not what a democratic socialist party needs for a leader.

But surely a successful coup outcome is unlikely. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) must recognise the support Corbyn has within the party membership; and if he wins another leadership contest – then what? That said, the tone of the dispute between Corbyn supporters and the MPs is turning nasty. I don’t agree with what the PLP are doing, but using Twitter to describe these MPs as vermin, scabs and traitors is not helping.

Perhaps the real problem for Labour, is that to win, they have to appeal to a smallish number of swing voters in some 145 constituencies. So the problems facing this country, as well as the democratic wishes of the Labour Party membership, come second to the interests of this small group of voters in marginal constituencies.

And this of course is a symptom of our out-dated and undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. If the only votes that matter are those from a small part of the electorate, then it is their interests that will shape policy. This, I believe, is why Labour will always revert to centrist policies in order to appear electable.

Of course in the referendum every vote counted. And while some people are looking at a possible legal challenge on whether or not the outcome is binding, it would be a brave parliament that ignored the wishes of the people. Indeed, only a general election, or another referendum on the actual terms of Brexit could morally overturn the result. Either way it will probably need a change of government to bring this about.

But with an electoral system against us, the odds of a don’t look promising. Caroline Lucas has advocated some type of progressive alliance to topple the Tories, something the Green Party leadership is now promoting. It could work but would take some organising. But getting a squabbling Labour party to agree is always going to be a tall order.

it may take an epiphany, but perhaps labour holds the key to voting reform

On Saturday there will be a gathering of people outside of Parliament in support of voting reform. They will be there because 25% of registered voters, who made up 37% of those voting, resulted in a single party winning just over 50% of the seats in parliament and so secure itself 100% of the power. Put another way, 3 in every 4 of us on the electoral register didn’t vote Tory, but as a result of our flawed democracy, they will be governing us for the next five years.

Of course, as it currently stands, voting reform for Westminster is still years away. Winning the argument with voters is one thing. But persuading the entrenched politican is quite another.

Unfortunately while this government rules, and unless Labour has some kind of epiphany, FPTP will be here for the foreseeable future. Indeed, while they believe they can form a majority government, it serves the Labour party’s interests to ignore voting reform.

And yet it is perhaps the Labour party who hold the key….

Because what if Labour don’t win in 2020 …. or in 2025? Do they go on moving to the right in some forlorn hope of one day winning an outright victory? Or at the first hung parlaiment do they accept coalition, embrace proportional representation, join with other parties and help us to put an end to future Tory majority rule, once and for all?

I know what I’d prefer.

the argument for PR is being won among electors, but what about the politicians? #FairVotesNow

So we have to endure five years of Tory majority rule. All thanks to a system that enables 25% of the electorate, with 37% of the popular vote, to elect 51% of our MPs thereby giving 100% power to the Conservative party.

The significance of this mathematical outcome has not been lost on some of the 63% who didn’t vote Tory. Before all the results were in, people were taking to Twitter to complain at the injustice of a system that saw the Green party secure over 1.1 million votes but only 1 MP. Perhaps a genuine first was seeing placards calling for proportional representation at the little reported demonstration against the Tories that was held in London last Saturday.

But the anger didn’t stop there. Sixteen year-old Owen Winter started a petition on Change.org, calling for a fairer voting system, while the Electoral Reform Society launched their own campaign Make seats Match Votes. Similarly, Avaaz.org also opened a petition calling for electoral reform. What’s more, our disproportionate FPTP system and its PR alternatives were covered by numerous news organisations in Britain and beyond.

So it looks like there is some real momentum for changing our system. Indeed, during the election campaign itself a survey found some 61% of people being in favour of PR.

The obvious question though is will this groundswell of support for PR make any difference? The Tories have no incentive whatsoever to change our voting system; and their are no signs that on this issue Labour is prepared to change either. So aside from the efforts of the SNP, Greens, Lib Dems and other smaller parties, it is going to take continued campaigning to keep the issue on the agenda. So we need to keep petitioning, keep shouting, keep marching, keep tweeting, blogging, lobbying and reporting on fair votes. The argument is being won amongst the electorate, but we need to translate this into support among Labour and Tory MPs.

The case for PR is well made by the Electoral Reform Society. Under a proportional system the Green Party would have an extra 24 MPs, whereas the Tories would have 86 fewer. Now I know critics of PR bang on about strong government, but the last coalition was already a strong government. What people really mean by “strong” is in fact “one party” government. 

Of course there is a drawback with PR. On last week’s vote UKIP would have over 80 seats under a proportional system. I agree that’s a frightening prospect. But we shouldn’t cherry pick the parts of democracy we like at the expense of others. If people are inclined towards UKIP, then its up to the rest of us to present an alternative. Indeed, perhaps if we had a system where there were no safe seats (as with PR) then all parties would be more accountable across all of the country.

On 7 May I voted for the Green party. I knew that in the ultra safe Tory seat where I lived it would have no meaningful effect. But unlike previous elections I was not prepared to even contemplate a tactical vote for the next best thing. Another 1.1 million voters did the same. I just hope that next time around I get a chance to make my vote actually count.

how do we increase participation in our democracy?

Despite a long history of democracy in this country, we have a democratic problem. For years now engagement in politics has been in decline, and turnout in elections has fallen. What’s more, trust in politicians has probably never been lower.

The Hansard Society, in their 2013 audit of political engagement, found that only 41% of people would be certain to vote in the event of an immediate general election, a figure that tumbled alarmingly to just 12% among young people. Even at the last general election, one of the closest fought in recent times, turnout was 65%. Put another way, over a third of registered voters didn’t bother to actually vote. It also means that of all those who could have voted, less than a quarter backed the Prime Minister’s party and only 39% voted for the parties that formed the coalition.

And as for those who were elected? The Hansard Society found that only 22% of people can correctly name their MP, and only 23% are satisfied with the way that MPs do their job.

Our MPs must themselves take some of the blame for this – the expenses scandal, and most recently the pronouncements from Boston and Skegness MP Mark Simmonds hardly help. But if we are going to mend our democracy, we need to make it relevant to everyone. Somehow we need to show that politicians are not all the same, and that by participating in democracy people can actually make a difference.

A glaringly obvious problem, and in my view something overdue for major change, is the voting system itself. A first past the post (FPTP) method may have suited the old two party system, but it is not sufficiently democratic for a multi-party system. What’s more, it produces results that help reinforce the decline in political engagement. I say this because most parliamentary seats are considered safe; and in many of these the winning MP is elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. Take where I live for example, unless you vote for the posh, public school educated conservative, your vote, like mine, is effectively wasted. There may be more of us who prefer other candidates, but we are stuck with one from the party that always wins. So is it any wonder then that people don’t seem that enthusiastic about democracy? Indeed, unless you live in one of the 100 or so parliamentary seats that are considered marginals, you really have no ability to bring about change by voting.

Clearly increasing participation in democracy will not be easy. Over the years there has been all sorts of suggestions, from allowing voting at the local supermarket, to lowering the voting age. Change is certainly needed so here are my own suggestions (but not necessarily with all the answers) to strengthen democracy and increase voter engagement.

1. Introduce proportional representation (for all elections): By this I mean a genuinely democratic system such as the single transferable vote (STV). This will certainly mean very few one-party governments, and it will require more co-operation between parties, but it will also mean more genuine choice at the ballot box. Indeed, STV has a number of advantages:

  • STV motivates political parties to contest every seat and there would be no area they could afford to ignore.
  • STV elections cannot be won by influencing only a few swing voters in marginal seats.
  • Under STV, MPs would be more accountable to voters.
  • STV can give voters a choice of candidates within a party.
  • Because STV lets voters list candidates in order of choice, they never need to waste their votes or vote tactically.

2. Reform the House of Lords: The Lords is so undemocratic it beggars belief. There may be no new hereditary peers these days, but the party leaders can still stuff the Lords with their friends and party donors. We need a fully elected second chamber to end the current system of patronage which serves to entrench the current system.

3. Lower the voting age to 16: If you can pay tax at 16 years old then you should definitely be able to choose who is setting those taxes. What’s more, as the most unengaged group in society, we need to encourage young people to take an active interest in politics; and a lower voting age, although not providing all the answers, will certainly help.

4. Decentralisation: Control and administration from the centre is still rife in this country. We should be returning powers to local authorities and devolving much more, creating regional assemblies in England, and strengthening the powers of governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

5. Reduce the power of the executive and the party whips system: I don’t know quite how to achieve this, but MPs need to have more collective power over government, and the executive needs to be more accountable to Parliament. This also means reducing the power of the party whips.

6. A more representative parliament: Achieving this is probably the most difficult reform of all. Hopefully, increasing participation in democracy will result in a more diverse range of candidates. But parties themselves have to look at their own rules and selection methods. At present Parliament seems to be made up mostly of rich men and career politicians, a significant proportion of whom were educated at independent schools. This doesn’t exactly resonate with the electorate and leads to accusations of being “in it for themselves” or “out of touch”. Our political parties need not just to recognise this problem but to actually deal with it.

7. Reforming parliamentary procedures: From what I can tell parliamentary procedures seem somewhat old fashioned, and not exactly family friendly. Tradition is important, but not for the sake of it. There must be opportunity for change which in turn may attract a more diverse range of MPs.

8. Recalling MPs: Rather than wait until the next general election, we the voters should have a method of recalling MPs who break the rules or act dishonestly, forcing them to face a by-election.

9. Modernise the voting process: With smart phones and tablets in widespread use, particularly among young people, surely it isn’t beyond our ability to allow online voting in addition to the more traditional methods.

This is quite a lengthy shopping list of reform (and I haven’t even considered party funding, compulsory voting, surveillance and secrecy). Sadly the present FPTP voting system protects the status quo, so another hung parliament is probably needed if anything is going to change. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who had the leverage after the 2010 election, managed only to secure a referendum rather than a new system, and with no support from Tory or Labour it was doomed to failure.

Indeed, the main two parties for all their previous talk of constitutional change and modernisation, have done precious little about it. For all its shortcomings, the current voting system still works in their favour; and so they are unlikely to volunteer change in their own manifestos. The only party with a progressive agenda on these issues is the Green Party who will need to build on their recent successes in a system that unfortunately works very much against them.

Of course if people become more engaged, so they will demand a greater say, ask difficult questions and expect alternative solutions. Set against this will be the vested interests of big business who have most to lose from a more democratic system. So constitutional change will be just part of the solution. For lasting change we will also need our politicians to stand up to the vested interests, and to work for the common good.

euro election: good news, bad news and beyond

So elections to the European Parliament take place tomorrow in the UK.

We can be reasonably confident that Liberal Democrats will do very badly, possibly losing all their current MEPs. Hardly a surprise really given their recent track record in the coalition. Indeed, I can’t be the only person who finds it difficult to tell Tory and Lib Dem apart.

So what of Labour and Tory? I’m not really sure as the polls have been inconsistent. Labour should come out the better, but I can’t help feeling that they haven’t grabbed the public’s interest. Sure they are saying all the right things about falling living standards etc., but what really are they offering? As for the Tories… They always seem to survive, and will no doubt spin the outcome to claim it a victory, whatever happens.

The good news is that the Green Party looks set to do well, possibly even trebling its number of MEPs. And this is despite having very little media exposure. Indeed, almost everything I’ve seen about the Greens has been on social media and blogs. They offer a refreshing alternative to the Labour Party, and with proportional representation, every Green vote, including mine, will count.

Sadly it is the far right who look set to benefit most from this election. As much as it pains me to say so, UKIP will surely make advances. They have openly stood on an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe ticket, and in spite of regular revelations about the bigoted beliefs of individual candidates, their bandwagon has rolled on. They can thank the media for a big helping hand, not least the BBC who have given Farage more platforms than Clapham Junction. Then there is Ofcom for forcing ITV and Channel 5 to treat them as a major party, despite having no MPs.

I can only assume that the growth in support for UKIP is down to the failure of mainstream parties to appear relevant in recent year. This I believe, is in part a symptom  of our tired Westminster system of first past the post elections, an over-powerful executive, and heavy-handed party whips who stamp out any dissent. But it is also I suggest because successive governments have, despite their claims, done little to empower and improve the opportunities of the many. The risk if parliament isn’t reformed, and if the mainstream parties fail to make a difference, is that nationalistic fervour will spread further. Then before we know it, fascism has taken a grip on us all, and democracy becomes a thing of the past.

 

demise of the liberal democrats

The Liberal Democrats look set to take a hammering in the European and local elections on 22 May; and I for one say that it serves them right. All the latest polls put the party on less than 10% in either fourth or fifth place. For a party in the coalition government that is not just bad, it is terrible.

Four years ago everything was different. Clegg was riding a wave of popularity, the Lib Dems were polling well, and they ended up with 23% of the popular vote at the general election. But in those days their image was one of a centre-left party. Indeed, the old liberal tradition that ran through the core of the party was often at odds with the free market instincts of the Tory party.

So I guess when they went into coalition with the Conservatives there were many like me who were surprised. For their traditional supporters I’m pretty sure it was quite a shock. And therein lies their problem. Despite Clegg’s claims about achieving much, their record amounts to little more than helping the Tories push through a string of right wing measures that have hit ordinary people hard.

Indeed, among their “achievements” has been the bedroom tax, the welfare cap, cuts to services, a massive hike in university fees, the post office sell-off, a reduction in employment rights, reorganisation of the NHS and so on. Sure, they were behind the personal tax allowance of £10,000, but they also supported a tax cut for the very rich. When David Steel once famously told his party to go home and prepare for government, I’m not sure this is what he had in mind.

But perhaps the most lasting policy failure of the Lib Dems concerns proportional representation. For the first time in decades the 2010 election result gave them an opportunity to finally bring change to our voting system. But rather than stand firm for a genuinely proportional system (which most pundits think Gordon Brown would have accepted), Clegg opted for the Tory compromise, went into coalition with them, and gave us a referendum on the alternative vote system. This hardly captured the hearts and minds of voters, and the campaign mounted by the Yes campaign was so appalling it was bound to fail.

Now Clegg faces a possible wipe-out in the Euro election, and big losses in the locals. This it seems will be the voters’ price for selling his party’s soul for power, ripping up their manifesto, and consistently voting through right wing policies from a conservative led government.