Our Politics is In Flames: Why Proportional Represtation Must Rise From the Ashes

Nikki Pound

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Finished screaming into your pillow yet? No, didn’t think so. It’s not a bad dream, you’re not hallucinating, this isn’t the proverbial hangover from hell…it’s really happening; the red button on British politics has been pushed and now it is imploding. And yes, it is completely legitimate to wonder if our only hope now is to get a petition going demanding that the Westminster cats take over and just do all the ‘Politicking’. Most of us are already hoping Palmerston (the Foreign Office kitty) will have the nous to launch an uprising and supplant Boris any day now. Behaviour and crises previously only parodied in the extremes by shows such as ‘The Thick of it’ and ‘Spitting Image’ are now the political norm. Civilians up and down the country are tormented by that bloody BBC News app; knowing the infamous beep can only mean one of two things…either someone has died, or the British political establishment has embarked upon another calamity. Often, in times of crisis, one turns to a good quote to sum up the situation, and to quote the iconic Malcolm Tucker, “Fuck me. This is like a clown running across a mine field”.

In all seriousness, though many of us mask our fears over the navigation of this incredible mess with a stoic ‘if you don’t laugh you might cry’ attitude, the situation is grave. And the severity and urgency with which we need to tackle the longstanding, deep rooted disillusionment, divisions, inequality, and anger in our society – which have been so definitively unmasked by the EU referendum campaign and the result – cannot be overstated. It is for that reason that it has never been more pressing to address the real democratic deficit, and lack of diverse and representative ‘voice’, our First Past the Post (FPTP) Electoral system has created. The case for Proportional Representation has never been more acute.

As Mr Cameron calmly handed the keys over to Theresa May, and said goodbye to No.10, you could be forgiven for thinking the country was not lurching from one relentless crisis to another. His last Prime Minister’s Questions was a rather banal and indifferent affair, with only the SNP making any gesture of acknowledgement toward the hideous situation he has left in his wake. Here is a Prime Minister who has presided over the implementation of some of the most regressive policies many people have seen in a generation. Despite years of Austerity, £597 billion has been added to the public debt; household debt has increased by a further £101 billion as people struggle to make ends meet. The vicious cycle of poverty that imprisons the most vulnerable in our society has become ever more entrenched, signified by the number of people relying on foodbanks rising from 61,000 in 2010, to over 1.1 million at present; while those at the top became 20% richer over the same period.

Unsecure work and rising zero hour contracts, compounded by the bedroom tax and the cutting, or delaying, of vital benefits payments, have been substantial factors in the 36% rise in people being accepted as homeless and in ‘priority’ need of emergency housing since 2010. It is worth noting that while 54,000 households were accepted as needing help from their local authority in 2014/15, 112,000 people applied for formal assistance, and 220,000 people sought informal advice regarding their precarious housing (or lack thereof) situation. Real wages in the UK have seen the longest stagnation since the Victorian era, falling 8% between 2007-2014. Austerity has impacted the already imbalanced economic and social situation of women more than men, with estimates suggesting that by 2016/17, women will bear the burden of 75% of all austerity measures. Were it not for some back bench rebels, and something akin to an opposition, cuts to tax credits and disability allowance would have left people, already on the breadline, in truly brutal circumstances.

If that were not legacy enough, we have witnessed the first ever all out strike by doctors in the 68 years of the NHS. There is a teacher shortage, with recruitment onto training courses failing by 14% between 2010 and 2015; exacerbated by people leaving the profession in droves – in the 12 months to November 2014, 50,000 trained teachers left the public sector alone. Even the kids have gone on strike! And the social services are on their knees, collapsing under the pressure of having to make nearly £6 billion in cuts since 2010. Phone hacking; Lybia; Syria; Yemen; racially charged mayoral campaigns; language towards refugees and migrants not even fit for the gutter – how shameful that anyone, let alone a Prime Minister in 21st Century Britain, would refer to human beings as a ‘swarm’.

He may yet be the man who goes down in modern history as the leader willing to gamble the fate of his country, and the survival of at least two Unions, for the sake of winning a majority. That in itself should tell you that our electoral system is defunct.

The main opposition party has been embroiled in the business of opposing no one but itself for nearly a decade. And now party MPs and the membership are at terminal odds with each other, struggling to marry the legacy of their past with the narrative of their future. The newly anointed Prime Minister was selected by 0.23% of the population, and heads up a party that only gained 24% of the eligible vote at the last general election. All things considered, it is easy to see why voter turnout has consistently fallen and stagnated to around 66% at general elections and a dire 36% at local ones. Justifiably, people feel that their vote won’t really count. And even if it did, the dominance of neo-liberal, free-market economics that underpins most western political institutions, premised on the assumption that wealth will ‘trickle down’ despite evidence of growing inequality to the contrary, has left the electorate believing, in real terms, there is no tangible difference between one mainstream political party or the other.

The truth is, under First Past the Post the predicament we now find ourselves in (another unelected Prime Minister, a self-destructing opposition, a deeply divided country) was inevitable. In lukewarm defence of the political establishment, our electoral system means they were always going to disappoint. How can any one party be all things, to all people – not in rhetoric, but in action? That is not to negate the rights and wrongs or ideological nature of policies once in power, but in order to gain power in the first place, our main political parties of the last 30 years, as they attempt to keep a hold of the ‘majority’, have (in appearance at least) moved their way towards that most hallowed of hallow ground – The Centre. In doing so our political debate has become de-politicized, even if the political parties themselves have not. People are less able to identify with left or right, Conservative, Liberal, Socialist; the need to gain the support of the ‘swing voter’ has left the electorate in no-man’s land. Media savvy Parties sound-bite their way through promises of social justice, equality, opportunity, supported public services and so forth; yet once in office, the politics of how those things are to be delivered is vital, and yet rarely publicly discussed. The devil is in the detail, as they say.

With so little choice in the face of so much social and economic disparity, the last few years have seen the back lash begin. Whether it is the rise of UKIP, the punishment of the Lib Dems at the ballot box, or the election of a tribal socialist as leader of the Labour Party, the signposts were all pointing to our political establishment, and the electoral system that sustains it, buckling under the weight of its own fallibility. Little wonder then, that when some of the most disenfranchised people in Britain were given the opportunity to make a real choice, it was taken with fervour. The only certainty that the EU referendum has delivered is the knowledge that there are many voices within our society, on both sides, that have long been ignored. Without electoral reform, this will continue to be the case.

Proportional Representation (PR) means the number of seats a party gains in Parliament is determined by the proportion of votes it receives (e.g. 25% of the vote means 25% of the seats). This is unlike the current system where the last general election saw the SNP with 1.45 million votes (4.7% of the vote) gain 56 seats; yet the Lib Dems, the Greens, and UKIP with 7.54 million votes combined, only managed 10 seats between them. A move towards PR would create a parliament that is more representative of the diverse opinions and needs within our society. Smaller parties that struggle to impact under FPTP could gain a platform upon which they could get their specific issues onto the agenda, whilst also lending their support to policies championed by other parties when their goals overlap. It would also give us some hope of engaging the 34% of the eligible voting population who do not vote, and the 13 million people who did not vote in the EU referendum. People will say if you don’t vote, you can’t complain, and it is easy to have sympathy with that view. However that is to simplify the reasons why people don’t vote. It also lets the political establishment off the hook; as long as they just about get their majority they do not need to engage these people, they do not need to address their issues. As we have seen with the EU referendum, ignoring the problems faced by long forgotten or considered communities only leads to growing resentment and distrust, and it will only further embed the divisions we face.

Critics of PR argue that it is a system that allows smaller parties to hold nations to ransom, that they gain too much power, and are able to play ‘King Maker’ in deciding who they want to be in coalition with. However, given that most western democracies operate some sort of system of PR, including 21 out of 28 western European countries, the notion of countries being held to ransom is not borne out in reality. Moreover, in the UK under FPTP, we have had a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, yet the Lib Dems were not able to hold the Conservatives to ransom – nor did it produce more equitable outcomes in terms of policy. The Lib Dems misguidedly abandoned the majority of their manifesto in order to govern with the dominant party of government, perhaps hoping they could hold them to account or shape the agenda more than they sadly were able to. There was no policy or decision making by consensus across multiple parties, just some minor concessions in order to prevent rebellions. Under FPTP, a coalition is not really a coalition: the dominant party is only obliged to make small gestures to get its coalition partners to help through legislation, no more, no less. Given how fractured our politics has become, it is unlikely that any of the major parties will be able to win an outright majority in future elections under the current system. How representative these coalitions can be is dubious at very best.

Opponents may also say that under PR we risk giving a voice to extremists, giving them political legitimacy. With hate crime rising by 54% since the referendum result, we are probably through the looking glass on that score. Bigoted extremists will always exist, we can either shy away from them, or we can confront them head on. The only way to defeat extremism in whatever way it presents itself is to dismantle the breeding grounds upon which it thrives – namely in communities that are under-represented and voiceless, living in social and economic violence, struggling to survive. Fear and hatred ferment most potently in darkness, we must bring them into the light.

In many respects it seems insane that in a society so diverse, where technology and progress is often presented as giving us so much choice, our electoral system – the system by which we decide what direction our country should take – gives us so little. Politicians will often call for ‘one voice’ to unite the nation. Quite simply, our nation can never be truly united until our political system becomes a platform upon which all voices can be heard.

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  1. Posted by Martin Childs

    Thanks Nikki, well stated. I have just three comments.

    1. You correctly say that in a coalition, power doesn’t lie with the smaller party. It seems that way at the outset, after a hung parliamentary election, that they do. But that only lasts for a few days. Then public opinion gets the jitters and wants a stable government in place. The pressure is then on the small party to make a deal. If they act irresponsibly and another election has to be called that small party will be wiped out as the electorate votes strongly for the two larger ones for stability. And once the government is in place, the junior party in the coalition will be the one to be punished if it falls and another election is called. Any tail wagging the dog effect is only passing and not really a factor.

    2. The ‘voice to extremists’ which opponents of PR point to is counter to the facts. It is true that under PR you might get the odd extremist elected and this is probably more likely than under FPTP. But as we have just seen, with just 37% of the vote cast, one party can achieve real power and govern as it wishes at present. With PR, an extremist party would have to gain more than 50% to get real power. An incredibly more difficult thing to achieve. PR is in fact a barrier to far right parties taking power. Furthermore, most systems have a 4 or 5% threshold anyway to block the odd one or two.

    3. You don’t mention the strategy necessary to gain PR. Those presently working with parties to get an electoral pact agreed are coming up against resistance from all of them. It might be that only a few local deals will finally take place. But that could be significant if an election result is close. But perhaps, of more importance, is to persuade Labour that its days of winning elections on its own are a thing of the past, or will be something of a rarity. Labour needs to have PR in their election manifestos from now on so it can be implemented without a referendum. The pressure should now be on Labour as they are in danger of maybe sentencing us to another 20 or 30 years of uninterrupted Tory rule if they don’t ditch FPTP soon.

    As you will be aware, Make Votes Matter are organising groups of voters across the country to meet with MPs to try and persuade them of the need for voting reform. So far, Labour MPs are proving fairly receptive to the idea.

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