Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Proportional Representation: Why Has It Taken So Long To Even Get This Close?

I was interested to hear on the news as part of the pre-election campaign that the government is now scheduling a vote on whether the UK moves to a referendum on introducing proportional representation for elections to the Westminster parliament.  These days, which parliament you are referring to is an important distinction because, despite the UK's apparent adherence to the first-past-the-post electoral system, in fact now for a number of elections in the UK, proportional representation is already in use. 

There is proportional representation for all elections to the European Parliament from UK consituencies, for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly since their creation in 1998, for the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2003 and in Scottish local elections since 2007.  So the concern that the British public would find it difficult to understand proportional representation seem to be disproved.  I know it does not apply to England where 83% of the UK population live, except for European elections which have a poor turnout, but anyone who has been a student and this is now more than 40% of 18-year olds will have the chance to engage with proportional representation in student union elections too.

Of course, when New Labour was uncertain of winning a clear majority in 1997 it laid out a series of constitutional reforms to attract what was seen as centre ground middle class people, especially those who back the Liberal Democrats in local or national elections.  This ground is very muddied now with the Liberal Democrats having seemingly been to the left of Labour in the early 2000s and now to their right, leaving a void on the left (and too much on the right with the UKIP and BNP attracting extremists).  Of course, given that Labour had been out of office for 18 years mainly in opposition to a government that had one a minority of the actual total votes, you could understand why they were sympathetic to an electoral system which more truly reflected their level of suppport and would have prevented what was termed the 'elected dictatorship' of the Thatcher years.  Naturally smaller parties, notably the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors, have always been supportive of proportional representation.  As I observed back in March 2008: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-if-proportional-representation.html  if the UK had had proportional representation it would have been a three-party state for much of the 20th century.

When Tony Blair's New Labour won the largest majority seen in the 20th century in British elections, the need to woo Liberal Democrat MPs into working with Labour disappeared immediately.  Not only the 'big tent' approach which had even envisaged Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet went instantly, a lot of the Liberal Democrat attracting ideas went too.  In the almost 13 years since Labour came to power we have seen minimal reform of the House of Lords, and as the MPs' expenses scandals showed, parliament as a whole has been neglected in terms of reform.  We are no nearer to an elected upper house than we were back in 1997 and in fact faith in the parliamentary system has been damaged.  Of course, the large majority's Labour won and the lack of need to actually address the parliamentary system suited Blair's personal, presidential, arrogant style of rule.  The extent of this was revealed to us further today in Clare Short's testament to the Chilcot Inquiry.  Behind the facade of chummy government, in fact the Cabinet system was as suppressed under Blair's smiling approach as it had been under Thatcher's scowling one; both were smug and unapologetic over the lack of democracy, accountability and discussion at the core of government as well as in each branch.

So, in 2010, Gordon Brown finds himself in a position which resembles in part the one Tony Blair was in back in 1997.  He is concerned that there will be a hung parliament and he is stacking up the policies that will woo the Liberal Democrat MPs if they are willing to fall for the trick again.  He is also building up a policy which may prevent Labour being out of office for the next one to two decades.  This is a real danger as it is estimated that the Conservatives' plans for redrawing of constituencies would make it far harder.  As Scotland and Wales places where Labour has always been strong, go more their own way, this may mean them losing any chance of a majority in England, and certainly for now, thus in the UK.  Of course, it is too late.  It was a mistake to wait 13 years to move towards proportional representation.  It would have been better in, say, 2000 once the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were up and running and people could see proportional representation working and could talk to British people who were not confused by it.  The Conservatives have never had an interest in proportional representation.  Unsurprising given that they were in power for a majority of the time in the 20th century.  Keeping the first-past-the-post system will also slow the haemorraging of Conservative supporters or potential Conservative supporters among the formerly politically inactive towards UKIP and the BNP, which after the European elections seems a reality with all the violence and harship even small gains by these parties bring in their wake.

The UK has been prevaricating over proportional representation for over ninety years now and it is time to move towards it.  Yes, it will mean extreme parties appearing in parliament, but it will also mean that sectional interests get a look in, drawing more people to democracy.  I can see the benefits of Green Party, a grey party, an Islamic party, a Socialist party let alone regional interest parties, having representation at Westminster.  Of course, the right wing is in fact already better equipped, with UKIP and the BNP able to get representation quickly as well as probably people like the Countryside Alliance.  Having such parties will mean that the existing parties will be compelled to shake off their complacency and be compelled to argue their case much more vigorously.  Blair could never have coped with a parliament chosen by proportional representation, he believed he was always right and had no need to explain himself.  In a parliament where more sections of society is represented and new groups can rise up if people are dissatisfied, politicians have to work harder.  In such a context we more likely would have been spared a fudged decision to invade Iraq and had had a strict policing of MPs' expenses.

Contrary to the assumptions by some last year that Cameron would simply walk into being prime minister, I have always thought that the battle would be tougher.  I think Labour and even Brown can offer good solutions for the UK and I am sure a less divided society than the one Cameron would foster.  It is a pity that proportional representation has been wheeled out once again in these circumstances rather than put into place properly mid-way through Labour's 13 years in office, or even earlier.  Democracy in the UK is weak.  It is archaic, too much (notably the House of Lords and the royal prerogative) is in fact undemocratic and it is too easily manipulated when the electorate is disinterested and elections are sewn up between two parties.  Too little attention is being paid in the run-up to the election to policies that will promote true democracy in the UK.  Instead the focus is purely on how hard we are going to beaten in cut-backs.  If you come face-to-face with a candidate surprise them and ask them what steps they are going to take to make the UK a real democracy for the first time.

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