Reforming democracy; in whom do we trust?
One of the things that has struck me the hardest over the last few weeks is the number of people calling for reform. From the Lib-Dems demanding that a 5% petition in any given constituency kick off a by-election, to the new pressure group 38 degrees demanding a ‘right of recall’, many of the demands are being taken directly from the hymn sheets of the far left. The Socialist Party and other groups have been demanding the right to recall MPs and stage a by-election for years upon years. If we had that right today, the General Election would be forced upon Gordon Brown – and rightly so. Whatever happens next, the Labour government has run out of mandate.
(Springtime of the Peoples: the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, before it was enclosed by the government to prevent public meetings)
Even David Cameron has been doing the rounds, promising reform, though both belatedly and hypocritically. When Ming Campbell, David Howarth and a smattering of others introduced the campaign for parliamentary fixed terms, Cameron was against the idea. Now, miraculously, it’s under consideration. Presumably this is a timely intervention to cover over the announced intention to step down by the Wintertons, two of the most odious people in parliament – both when it comes to voting on transparency or to themselves claiming expenses for things they have absolutely no right to whatsoever. Whatever the case, most MPs are showing up late to the party.
Cameron has also penned, or had penned for him, one of the most waffle-filled articles I’ve ever read over at the Guardian. I agree with the concept of devolving power to people – but the single example he gives over several huge paragraphs is about education. And the impact of his choice reform, to ‘end the state monopoly in education’, does not give power to the individual but reduces the individual to the position of passive consumer. Whereas at the height of local democracy, every state school had elected governors and parents associations, ‘ending the state monopoly’ means handing over majority control to the profit motive of the private sector, not to people.
We shouldn’t expect anything less from the Tories, however, and I’m continually surprised at the lack of context which the Guardian and other ‘liberal’ news agencies display when they report Tory policy proposals.
As for the other ideas being kicked around by different political groups; I’m in favour of fixed term parliaments; I’m in favour of two year terms; I’m in favour of having every decimal point scrutinized from the register of MPs expenses; I’m in favour of having parliamentary assistants paid directly by the Commons. But what about the arguments being made that only by getting rid of first past the post will we establish a fair electoral system in which this sort of privilege will not go unchallenged? Anthony Painter, Sunder Katwala and a number of people writing a letter to the Observer have all had a bash at this topic, and I feel it deserves revisiting.
The benefit of a proportional system is that it apportions representatives in a more accurate manner, according to who votes for whom. There are multiple options available, each of which has their downsides. Personally, I quite like the idea of abolishing the House of Lords entirely and dividing constituencies into smaller sizes, each with one winner elected by the AV/Instant Run-off method of preferential voting. This would allow individual accountability, it allows for tactical voting and it is a fairly simple method, which is paramount when it comes to getting people to the polls, and delivering a representative sample.
Saying that, I’m not opposed to STV and there are some decent attempts to explain why it’s not a bad system. I campaigned for an independent in the Dublin North constituency (Irish elections proceed by STV) and he was elected on the back of a very strong campaign built around water taxes and subsequently the bin tax. This is the positive side to STV; too many people focus on the negatives – that the BNP might sneak someone in. If we have campaigns built around positive issues, where Greens or Socialists might get elected, then we’ll be closing that door by showing that a vote for the good minority parties is not a wasted or merely a protest vote.
If I was to choose my least favourite, it would be basically any system with an Open Primary to select the candidate prior to the election. I am a firm believer in praxis; theory and practice. Without one, you cannot have the other – and when it comes down to democracy, I trust that an activist-selected and activist-led campaign will be one that will achieve more than a campaign based around who has the better media profile and has more money to sling around, which is the ever present danger with Open Primaries. Also, I also feel it’s the right of activists, by virtue of being the people who get out and campaign to have a bigger say in who they campaign for than people who merely vote.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the idea of voting does not constitute democracy. Many more elements than that are required. That said, reforming how we vote can still bring benefits. The harder we make it for a narrow clique to legitimate themselves and the easier we make it for campaigners and activists to secure seats independent of party machines, the better. Whether it’s to combat corruption, or to further campaign objectives, the shorter the distance between people and representatives the better. This absolutely includes a right of recall.
What I think has been left unsaid in all these debates is the extent to which we simply can’t trust the political elite – Tory or Labour – to reform themselves. On the part of Labour, Jack Straw has come forth to talk once more about overhauling the constitution (hat tip). And yet, twelve years into a Labour term of office, we’re still bogged down in pointless discussion on the subject of the House of Lords. How on earth are we to believe that Labour has any real commitment to reforming the constitution when, two years after a majority of MPs voted for a fully elected House of Lords, Jack Straw is only now poking his head back out of the labyrinthine corridors of Whitehall?
And when he does so, he manages to fluff completely a reference to PR.
Cameron is even worse. His proposed reforms, mentioned earlier and discussed at LibCon, are so much window dressing since the Conservatives flat out refuse to discuss any alterations to the plurality voting we have currently for Commons’ elections. The bottom line is, we can’t trust the two major parties. I do not believe we can trust the Lib-Dems either. They are the party that has demanded PR for the longest time, but on the other hand, they are born political opportunistis – which is why Nick Clegg wouldn’t and won’t say who he will go into government with, should the election produce a hung parliament in which the Lib-Dems hold the balance.
We certainly can’t trust the media; despite 1 in 3 Tories being caught out diddling expenses compared to 1 in 5 Labourites, the Telegraph still took five days to begin hammering the Tories (hat tip). In any case, the response of both parties has been lacklustre at best.
Instead we have to trust to ourselves. Surely enough, the anger of the activist base has been acute, with the letter of many Labour members to the NEC, signed by myself among others, letters to the Guardian and the Observer and a general sea change online and offline. The problem is that our constituency parties are moribund; our district trades’ councils are moribund. General political life is at a very low ebb, unless you know exactly which rocks to look under. Recreating it takes time, effort and funds – of which the average activist is devoid in the run-up to election time. This is a problem to which I don’t have an answer.
I remain, however, hopeful that the last thing the government does before it switches off the lights is call a referendum on the nature of our democracy; Lords, Commons, electoral system, all of it.