May 5th – Our Choice, Our Chance…
So, on May 5th we get the chance to alter our voting system from First Past The Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV). With Ham-Face and Little Nicky setting out the opposing arguments this morning, it would be useful to review what we have, and what we could get.
THE SYSTEM AS IT IS:
At the moment, our political system is a Constitutional Monarchy, that suffers a little Democracy to intervene now and then. Parliament is Sovereign, with the power to dismiss the Monarch – a power not used since 1688, but that led to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1937. The House of Commons is theoretically where power lies – as the elected chamber is the only place where legislation can be decisively approved or denied. The unelected Lords can only amend Bills, and since Lord Salisbury back in Victorias day, no Prime Minister has sat there. Practically, power lies with The Cabinet, some would say The Cabinet Office.
Our Electoral System is based on FPTP, and in practice this means that the candidate with the most votes, regardless as to whether this is a majority, wins. At the last General Election, fully two thirds of seats were won by candidates who had less than fifty percent of the vote.
Our participation in elections as voters has been declining since 1945, and our disengagement with the political process is at its highest since the vote was won for women and the propertyless. The expenses scandal, the perceived unresponsiveness of our elected members, and the narrowness of the terms of official political debate (the hunt for the nebulous “Middle England”)have all contributed to this. There is a distinct class divide in voting – the richer you are, the more likely you are to vote – which partially explains why our major parties spend much of their efforts trying to placate a mythical “mainstream” vote, whilst ignoring other considerations.
As for those we elect, increasingly and overwhelmingly they come from similar backgrounds regardless of party. Very few MPs have come from outside of the Middle Classes, and the domination of The Cabinet by men from Oxbridge is simply an extreme version of this. In the last edition of the late Anthony Sampson’s “Who Runs This Place?” a marked trend towards certain professions was noted – Law, Finance, Local Government and Higher Education are the major areas of practical experience that our MPs have. Student Politics is the proving ground for this new political class, who in attitude see the rest of us as at best foot soldiers in their campaign for ultimate power. This is regardless of party.
FPTP has resulted in the many seats being “safe” for one party or another – leading to a strengthening of party machines and “a job for life” for some of the least worthy members of the house. Only at times of major upheaval in politics – 1945, 1979, 1997, do these seats even stand a chance of being overturned. in effect, your preference only counts either at one of these elections, or if you live in a marginal seat.
Effectively, under FPTP, a party needs only to win around 30% of the available vote to have a rock-solid majority. This happened throughout the 1980s, ’90s and the last decade. In May 2010, less than 2% of us decided the result.
A culture of entitlement reigns, believing themselves to be a Meritocracy ( whilst misconstruing the term), a certain arrogance can be detected amongst this self-justifyng elite.
What We Could Get:
The Alternative Vote system means that instead of just putting one cross next to one candidate on your ballot paper, you instead rank them in order of your preferences, as far as you wish – so in my case that would be Labour 1; Green 2; and the rest can go hang, unless I like their candidate. Its up to you how far you go. The votes are counted, and the candidates with least votes is eliminated, their second preferences added to the other candidates. This continues until one candidates has over 50% of the votes. Around 14 million of us already use this system for elections in Trades Unions,Political Parties, Student Organisations and such, so many of us already have experience of it. It must be said that whilst this is a more consensual system, it is not proportional – we can still end up with Governments elected by a minority of the electorate.
Possibly the starkest image is best provided by The British Electoral Survey at Essex University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. In a wide-ranging study, the BES took a representative survey of voting preferences at the May 2010 election, and found the results to be thus:
Conservative 283 – down 22
Labour 248 – down 10
Lib Dems 89 – up 32
At first glance, for the left this looks unpalatable, but look at the arithmetic – we would have been able to offer what Gordon Brown couldn’t last May – a stable Coalition with the Lib Dems. Whether the Orange Book gang would have taken this up is another matter, but there is a strong possibility that the decimation of the Welfare State and dismantling of the NHS would at least not be on the agenda. Remarkably, last May ten seats would have changed straight from Tory to Labour, and only one vice versa.
Many seats regarded now as “safe” would now become winnable. ALL MPs would be returned on over 50% of the votes cast in every constituency.
Our MPs would thus have to work harder for us – local issues would become really important – no more promises to “look into” a third crossing for Waveney for example, only for your MP to forget it until election year.
You get a potentially bigger say, with AV there is no need for tactical voting, simply pick your favourite candidate first. If they don’t win, you still get a say. So Labour votes in the South West and East Anglia now matter, as would Tory votes in Scotland and South Wales.
At a stroke, MPs would have to reach beyond their comfort zones – Surrey Tories and Keith Vaz take note…
The Alternative Vote keeps what is best about the current system, the historic constituency link – you will still know who your MP is, and be able to lobby them.
If extended to local government, then the “Rotten Boroughs” that regularly infest Private Eye would be altered – one-party rule over Tower Hamlets or Suffolk would be altered. No more “sigmoid waves”, “virtual councils” or distant aloof local bigwigs.
If AV is passed, then the possibility of an actually elected House of Lords is strengthened – no more input by those who rely on their place by contributions to party coffers. We would finally have a Liberal Democracy – over two hundred years since Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man.
AV is far from perfect – it would be better to have a more proportional system, such as AV plus, as recommended by The Jenkins Commission on Electoral Reform, yet is a start.
There is just one more point. As part of The Coalition stitch-up over Reform, the Tories have been able to tag on the axing of 50 seats, on the grounds of “cost” – as if you can put a price on Democracy. If AV fails to go through, then the Tories, with Liberal Democrat support, will have managed to Gerrymander the electoral map of Britain, with minimal consultation with you, that no-one voted for, potentially solidifying their hold on power. Only AV will go some way to ameliorating this.
That is why all of us in Labour, and everyone who believes in Democracy, must support the Yes to Fairer Votes Campaign.