Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Electoral Reform

John Cruddas, the as left as you can hope for Labour MP, has been arguing for proportional representation today - which is good timing in the shadow of the European elections which were the first significant elections in this country to be conducted on a proportional basis.

Since the Euros we've seen other bodies like the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly all created using at least partial forms of proportional representation - and in the case of the London Mayoralty a form of STV (where you can rank your first and second candidates). All of these new models have resulted in more collaborative style in politics, and have often led to the electorate being able to make powerful statements.

It's not that long ago that Ken Livingstone won an earthquake on an independent ticket against his old party (as well as the rest of them). He was undoubtedly assisted in that by voters being able to vote for him and Labour simultaneously. The Greens were able to use their own Mayoral candidate last time round to bolster both their assembly vote and advocate Ken for Mayor with some, but not enough, success. It's nurtured a more grown up form of politics that's been fairly alien to the British political system to date.

Likewise UKIP made significant gains at the last Euro elections helped by a system that attempts to represent the views of a region not just winner takes all. Whatever I think of UKIP and their shonky MEPs what is undeniable is that this result was a genuine reflection of the people's will. Compare that to the 1989 Euro elections (conducted under First Past The Post) where the Greens received 2.3 millions votes (15% nationally) but not a single MEP. Literally millions were disenfranchised.

The core to Cruddas' argument is that under our current General Election system parties are forced to concentrate their fire on the 10% of the seats that could swing either way leaving the rest of the country essentially untouched by political campaigning, and unable to effect the outcome of the election. It's a postcode lottery as to whether your vote has any impact at all.

It's certainly the case that where the BNP have made local election gains it has overwhelmingly been in areas that are "safe" Labour seats and have barely seen a local politician in years. Likewise in Cambridge the Greens won their first councillor in a Labour safe seat that had been effectively uncontested for decades.

These are the rotten fruit that should have fallen from the bough long ago. Far from being areas that impudent new comers should be avoiding massive majorities will often indicate support that has been taken for granted and can be won by any alternative that takes the area seriously over the course of a few years.

As far as it goes I'm all for what Cruddas is saying although I think we need to go far further.

I'd be for a wide ranging democratisation of the country's institutions and, crucially, the economy. In terms of other government bodies I'd be for the replacement of the House of Lords with a new second chamber elected on a PR system, preferably open lists, the abolition of our current Head of State and let's not forget the lower rungs too - PR in local elections, with full powers returned to councils, is just as important in ensuring that the citizens of this country have a say over what happens in their local area.

We should also look well beyond representative democracy and examine how citizens can participate more directly. In Cuba citizens who collect a certain number of signatures have a right to address the government directly and to have their demands debated. In Venezuela they have set up fully funded local committees in parallel with councils, who have helped to shape education and social reform in a way that the community can have a direct, unmediated control over.

We need to bring an emphasis onto the role civil society can have in empowering ordinary people. Whether that's the trade unions, community organisations, churches or campaigning bodies there are pre-existing bodies that can be a valuable mechanism for democratisation as long as we go beyond the vacuousness of consultation and contentless inclusion of a couple of community members on some powerless quango.

I could go on - but my point is that we need to look outside of our current institutions in order to bring a more real depth to the word democracy. Yes, I'm very much in favour of the democratic reforms Cruddas is suggesting - but it's pretty thin gruel when you start thinking about how far we could really go before we even begin to challenge the fundamentals of twenty first century capitalism.


Strategist said...

I can't concur with you that Cruddas's conversion is "good timing" - Labour promised to a vote on electoral reform in the 1997 and 2001 manifestos at least, did nothing about it for a decade or more of large Commons majority, and are only now finding the arguments for PR just as they are about to be consigned to oblivion with no chance of bringing the policy in for years & years.

Cameron is going to win a working majority on FPTP and will immediately get the Boundaries Commission redrawing the electoral map which will remove Labour's inbuilt 50 seat headstart. So it's all just a bit too late really.

Jim Jay said...

Fair point. They've talked about this for soooo long, I shouldn't just give them my gratitude that they are still talking about it!

Get on with it you buggers!