What reform and how can we achieve it? These are questions which have been asked on this blog repeatedly when it comes to demands for changing the means of electing our representatives. So what impact will be had by Gordon Brown’s announcement that Labour intend to pursue primary legislation before the General Election ensuring a referendum on the Additional Vote system?
Short term electoral advantage seems to be the order of the day, with a sop to the Lib-Dems and a potential wedge between a Tory minority government and a potential Lib-Dem coalition.
Overall, like Sunny, I doubt it will have much effect, though for different reasons. There are good and bad things to be said about most of the proposed systems, but no application of any of them anywhere in the world has been shown to make politicians less corrupt, more inclined to listen to people, less accessible to a business and political elite etc.
It is naive, in my view, to believe that AV will re-establish faith in the current system. It is routinely cited by pressure groups and columnists that the last Labour government was handed a massive majority with only 36% of the vote, but I don’t really see how playing with numbers until someone in each constituency has more than 50% makes the result any more legitimate.
One would think the whole concept of having a first preference will mean that this is the person you want elected; if he or she is not elected, then are you not going to be disappointed? In any case, each MP having 50%+1 of the vote doesn’t increase engagement by the millions who don’t vote, and it won’t increase the legitimacy of governments that act to harm the interests even of those who elected them.
Is anyone saying, for example, that under AV we might not have gone to war in Iraq? The most egregious acts of British democracy are often committed with the full support or tacit acceptance of the Opposition. Will it protect our civil liberties? Not if the Australian SIO Act 2002 is anything to by; despite John Howard’s tight (AV based) majority, this legislation was arguably more punitive than UK law.
So what is the point of the kerfuffle about electoral reform? It is more representative of those who have voted (and in some countries, where it is tied to compulsory voting, more tied to the entire country) but, in that a majority voted for what’s on offer. It doesn’t challenge, however, the processes which shape what is on offer, and as I’ve consistently argued, that is the key to a real democracy. Nor, incidentally, will it change some other side issues like safe seats (touted as correlating to outrageous expenses claims) – there will still be plenty of those.
Many, most recently Ben Bradshaw, have made a great deal out of the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ of British parliamentary politics. The call for electoral reform is usually tacked on somewhere in here, but I think this is a distraction.
Populist issues like individual corruption (or, for that matter, ceding power to the European Union or to quangos) aren’t the core of our undermined democratic legitimacy. It’s because the most important decisions – the ones that have an impact on jobs, healthcare, education, housing, transport and pretty much every other fundamental public issue – are taken on the basis of other considerations inimical to the well-being of the British people.
Policy is at fault here, not the meta-issue of British parliamentary mechanisms.
For the British Labour Party, despite a huge reserve of political capital, and the ever-present aid of an Tory opposition still stigmatized by the arrogance of its eighteen-year rule, policies at odds with what people perceived as its mandate have gradually eroded popular support. As this tide goes out, it exposes a deeply disconnected Labour. This creates a crisis of legitimacy for parliamentary democracy because the illusion of a party, any party, that will stand up for jobs, working people and spotted dick pudding, is shattered.
Faltering Conservative poll leads as their actual policies are discussed should give us pause for thought. Suddenly people realise that no party likely to form a government really speaks for them. Thus arises talk about PR and the majoritarian tyranny of FPTP. Without question, however, this problem will not be fixed by any variation on proportional representation.
The right policies, of redistribution, of intervention in the economy, or reinforcing the social welfare system, might restore the illusion, but the real fault is the inability of the Left to secure structural accountability of politicians to the members of their parties (the sort of thing which might encourage political engagement on the part of the average joe), or of parties to their delegate conferences, and of policy to the mass movement which would lend its life and weight to these things.
Meanwhile, a lack of accountability and the resultant turn towards the establishment-friendly centre attracts exactly the sort of chancers who can accommodate themselves to whatever politics are in fashion, with a side-helping of house-flipping thank you very much.
Barack Obama’s continuing dismal performance surely proves my wider argument, since his presidential campaign managed to whip up a huge movement, only for the realisation to spread that the movement existed on Obama’s terms and not vice versa. American disillusionment has resulted in falling opinion polls, defeats in formerly safe Democratic states and the looming threat of a new Republican Revolution this November, just as continuing disillusionment threatens a Tory victory by default here in the UK.
I’m encouraged, however, that some amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party have begun to take an active interest in the problem. It may be too little too late, but the world doesn’t end with a Tory election victory. Labour in opposition must be stiffened and transformed. I suspect, with a democratic, accountable party and a combative style capable of gathering and sustaining a mass movement to defend our ideas, the legitimacy of our electoral system will return to being an academic question.
(For an alternative, class-based, critique, see Liam’s, “Stay Awake! Electoral Reform is important!”).
“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1738.
The above quote from Benjamin Franklin is the less known brother of Franklin’s other comment upon temporary security and liberty. It comes from his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he wrote under a pseudonym as Richard Saunders.
I was reminded of it when reading Gordon Brown’s speech on security, as one might suspect. With announced intentions to increase the security budget by a billion pounds between now and 2011, a socialist may be forgiven for despairing of this Labour government.
No less reason for despair is that the usual ‘hawks’ are out and no doubt stumping for votes, to ensure the passage of what promises to be a very stormy session in the House of Commons. Jacqui Smith, fresh from conceding defeat to the Police Federation is perhaps concerned with restoring the damaged prestige of the government by being seen to do something on terrorism.
Rachel North, a victim of the 7/7 bombings in London once said, “I wasn’t blown up in an act of war. People didn’t die on my train in an act of war. I’m not going to sink to the level of people who say that everything goes – it doesn’t. There are some things that are more important than being able to have a safe journey in to work.”
I have always thought that a brave sentiment – and one that I share, but which I voice only on occasion. The reason for my restraint is that, though I have no problem putting my own life in jeopardy as an act of defiance against terrorists, deciding to do so is a very personal thing, one which I would not like to decide on behalf of my fellow citizens. Yet it is a sentiment that I hope will be given wings when the Labour backbenches marshal their forces against the vote to extend the detention limit.
It is more evident than ever that British security forces co-operated in the creation of areas like Camp X-ray. Our government has signed away our right to be judged solely by the laws of our own land when it comes to extradition. We have been pushed and pushed about the right to detain people. We have been implicated in the flight of suspect persons via the UK to countries which permit torture. It can go no further.
Rachel continued, “What we can’t take is a gradual erosion of our civil liberties, of everything that makes us worth defending.”
A billion pounds spent on creating defences we will probably never need is a billion pounds diverted from the very necessary flood defences which we definitely will need within the not-so-distant future. It is money taken away from investing in research into drugs, into non-hydrocarbon transport, into renewable energy. It is money taken away from the national health service, from education, from services that could be provided to our pensioners.
None of which spending is a guarantee that we will not suffer another terrorist attack, the equal to or greater than the 7/7 bombings.
Yet we’re still occupying Iraq and we’re still ambiguous in regard to our official positions on certain dictatorial regimes. Our then Prime Minister supported the massively disproportionate strikes on Lebanon by Israel – and then we voiced concerns about how Hezbollah placing their weapons stores in populated areas even though the Israelis do exactly the same where it suits them.
Our best guarantee of safety from terrorism is surely an honourable foreign policy – and that is something the price tag of which amounts to much less than the billion pounds we’re pledging to security. Our best defence is our democracy, spread not by force – something rapidly appearing unrealisable – but by its moral authority in the face of aggression by nations which should know better. None of this is on offer from the Prime Minister’s new foray.
Instead, we’re going to be practising the modern equivalent of duck and cover. We’re going to see the continuation and extension of a programme which sees state funds sent to religious groups, in an effort to strengthen the hand of so-called moderates against the extremists. Someone should ask the Palestinians how that has worked out for them.
The rhetoric of the government on things like investigating financial transactions and freezing assets may be tough when it comes to terrorism, but that didn’t stop it ignoring the rampant corruption inspired by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to political concerns. Who can trust the words of such a government?
We should hearken to the words of Mr Franklin. Proceeding down this road we both sell our virtues and sacrifice our liberties.