Thursday, May 12, 2005

Yet more electoral reform stuff

I was at that meeting at the Commons last night run by the Electoral Reform Society, and in the pub afterwards for the freaky experience of meeting a few other Britbloggers in the flesh. Open Democracy has a good write-up.

It was interesting, attempted to be realistic, had some bizarre moments, and Committee Room 14 (where I once had the fun of shaking Gorbachev by the hand, and where the Parliamentary Labour Party did their best show of loyalty to Blair earlier in the day) was packed to the rafters.

The overall message was simply that we have to make our voices heard, and the best way to do that at this early stage is keep as non-specific as possible. No suggestions of specific systems, just vocally pointing out the flaws in the current one. Build up the grass roots, push for local election reform first, and hope it builds momentum.

A few key quotes I managed to jot down:

Polly Toynbee (sub-par Guardian columnist)

  • "gross distortion of the whole political process... you have to treat the electorate as if they were all idiots" (hadn't noticed from your columns, Polly...)
  • "for the moment what we need is a spirit of rebellion and revolutiion, the chartists, the suffragettes... money... huge demonstrations... from whatever side of the political process"
  • "Let's target every marginal seat with a member who doesn't support reform" (this coming from the woman who only last week was telling her readers they were idiots if they voted tactically to send a message to Blair about Iraq... Just a tad hypocritical...)
Billy Bragg (Lefty singer/songwriter/activist)
  • "there's a huge amount of tribalism out there" (hence The Sharpener - trying to break down the ideological divide to enable proper, open debate with none of the usual petty protectiveness over individual party / ideological loyalties)
  • "The Conservatives - how willing will they be to reform a system where a 1% extra share fo the vote gives them 30-40 extra seats? ...we can't kid them this is their way back to power"
  • "take every opportunity to move the constitutional debate forwards"
Martin Linton (Labour MP)
  • "people who were for the Labour government but not going to vote Labour... voting Green or Lib Dem in a constituency like mine does mean letting the Tories in" (he won after three recounts with a majority of just 163...)
  • "probably the worst voting system in the world... we voted for a shift to the left and ended up with a shift to the right... it is the least sophisticated voting system in the world"
  • "it has needed reform since the 1860s... you can't toss a coin between three people"
  • "of the people who voted Labour... 1 million said they were voting to keep another party our and 1 million Lib Dem voters said the same thing... so the popular vote is a very bad indication"
Chris Rennard (Lib Dem peer)
  • "the simple fact we have to explain is that 36% of the electorate voted and got 55% of the MPs in parliament"
  • "tactical voting is what a rotten and corrupt electoral system requires"
  • "it is absolutely not about keeping the Conservative party out"
  • "The House of Lords ironically is more representative of the country than the House of Commons" (too true - currently we need to reform the Commons before the Lords, I reckon - at least the Lords is doing its job properly)
Peter Tatchell (Gay/Human rights campaigner - speaking from the floor)
  • "We need to learn the lesson of history for how people win democracy - chartists, suffragettes - the leaders will not listen to rational arguments... it is necessary to take to the streets, breaking the law"
In short, interesting, but with little in the way of concrete suggestions. There's a vigil planned outside Downing Street on Tuesday 17th to coincide with the opening of parliament, but beyond that it looks like being a slow process.

Europhobia's Matt chips in via email:
PR won't get anywhere if it's just mocking Blair and the tories. If it does that it links it too much to the political situation of today, and circumstances will change. If the Labour Party dumps Blair after next May's elections, and the tories are still an ineffective minority (both of which are likely), what will we need PR for?

The rhetoric has to be timeless. This is about a better system for the next century.

For similar reasons, I wouldn't take up the Chartists and direct action- smacks too much of class politics. We need to get the Conservatives onside. All the debates around radicalism in the 1760s revolved around creating a parliamentary system representative of and answerable to 'the People' (handily never defined). Perhaps its time to revive John Wilkes and Major Cartwright. Pitt the Younger was a reformer early in his career, too, so there's one role model for the tories.

But I have a horrible feeling that any pro-PR campaign will end up like the pro-Euro campaign, staffed by true-believers for true-believers.
Splitting into factions is inevitable, as everyone has their own preferred systems (viz. the anti-European campaign, with UKIP splitting, splitting, then splitting again). So for the time being, any movement for reform has to avoid advocating any specific scenario.

Even the phrase "proportional representation" should, I reckon, be avoided - it summons up too many images of the loss of local representatives, strict proportionality by popular vote, a succession of chaotic and impotent coalition governments and the like, none of which are necessary outcomes of PR, but which are linked with it in the popular imagination.

The call is not for proportionality. The call is for fairness.


Blogger Andrew said...

Fairness is such a vague concept though. It strikes me so far that there are plenty of arguments against PR (or whatever we call it) that can be shot down by choosing a good system. All very well, but where's the positive case, beyond stating that it's not fair, whatever that ends up meaning?

The problem you reformists will run into is that a clear majority (of people, as well as in party political terms) have something to lose and nothing to gain. Any tribal/loyalist Labour or Tory voter advocating PR is literally being irrational.

5/12/2005 01:55:00 pm  
Blogger Unity said...

I'm working on a piece for Talk Politics which should feed nicely into this debate but from a different angle - should go up at the weekend if all goes well timewise - but the general thread of the argument is.

1. The old single axis (left vs right) interpretation of British politics which based mainly on economic issues is now moribund and will stay that way while the economy remains relatively stable.

2. There was a clear voting trend at this last election but most pundits missed it because they were looking for it in the wrong place.

3. This actual trend was the development of growing fissure in the electorate on the issue of whether you want a (socially) authoritarian or libertarian government - do you want to governed by conviction or consent?

4. That while Iraq may have been the main catalyst for this fissure in general terms people who switched from Labour to the Lib Dems did so for a range of reasons which fed into their preference for less authoritarian and more libertarian government.

To pick apart Andrew's rather banal commentary, fairness may be a vague concept to you but the idea that government's should govern with the consent of the people is far from vague.

Or to put it another way - do we want to citizen's who're governed or subjects who're ruled?

5/12/2005 02:34:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

Unity: without wanting to fall into the trap you've managed to jump headfirst into of becoming unnecessarily personal, you've made the classic commenter's error of assuming that my commentary refers to what is going on in your head rather than what the post actually refered to.

The argument I have seen most often in favour of PR is 'fairness' - i.e. the concept that we should get exactly what we vote for. I tend to think this is a naive view of the world, in the light of the amount of tactical voting that goes on - see the recent post on the subject at The Sharpener for more on this.

You are arguing for something quite different - that government should legislate with the consent of the people. I could not agree more. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is one of the fundamental axioms on which my own political leanings are based.

5/12/2005 03:22:00 pm  
Blogger Gareth said...

Did anyone bring up the question of England in this meeting?

5/12/2005 04:51:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Gareth - not that I recall. It was all focussed on the method of electing, not so much what we should be electing for. That would only have complicated things more - they're merely focussing on the fact that it's all a bit dodgy now, and are going to work out the details later.

Andrew - by "Fair" I didn't necessarily mean that we should get exactly what we vote for, simply that it more closely resembles it. Straight PR wouldn't work especially well in this country thanks to the way we're used to parliament working, but a combination of other systems may produce a better result. You could even retain an element of FPTP through giving the party with the most votes bonus MPs or something - I dunno. The precise system isn't important, just to make it slightly more in line with the actual share of the vote - even just a bit.

What gets me at the moment, though, is the anti-PR argument that it would force coalition governments. I mean, what are political parties if not coalitions? If every Labour/Tory/Lib Dem MP genuinely agreed every other there'd be no need for the whips. I reckon that even under a PR system, they'd just extend the power of the whips to include coalition partners - you'd end up with new, more temporary, trans-party organisational systems on top of the old party ones.

The concept of party loyalty, however, is something I've never understood. You need to be loyal to what you believe in, surely?

Unity - the trouble with the libertarian/authoritarian split is that all three main parties are authoritarian, just in different ways. The Tories and Labour want to lock everyone up whom they dislike, but the Lib Dems want increased taxation and more government power in other areas.

Libertarianism just isn't practical within a party political system, because political parties and political power by their very nature preclude it. We've not yet seen a true libertarian political party because it's a contradiction in terms - those that pretend to be are just paying lip-service. The business of government and politicians is to be as big and influential as possible.

(Oh, and play nice in the comments, there's a good chap/chappess...)

5/12/2005 08:02:00 pm  
Blogger Gareth said...

I understand where you are coming from but everyone already has PR except for England.

If England had PR on a devolved basis, and if England, Wales, and NI were granted the same powers as the Scottish government, then the UK would be ruled for the greater part by government elected by PR.

5/12/2005 09:29:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

What gets me at the moment, though, is the anti-PR argument that it would force coalition governments.

My point is that I can see that the anti-PR arguments aren't very good, but that the pro-PR arguments don't go much beyond the 'fairness' argument. For a fundamental constitutional change, I think you need a strong, almost overwhelming, positive case. I've yet to see it, and I'm the kind of person who will need to be convinced, as my suspicion is that I have everything to lose.

What I'm saying is that the reformists need to concentrate on making a positive case for change. At the moment, all we're hearing is a list of gripes with FPTP, and a refutation of arguments against PR. Much like the Tory manifesto, that isn't convincing anyone...

5/13/2005 08:48:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Ths is the problem - finding the right rhetoric. I reckon most people can be sold on this, but only if we can identify a short, snappy, easy to understand and entirely positive message on which everyone can agree. Which is, of course, rather easier said than done.

The only thing in the campaign's favour so far is that, when pushed, most proponents of FPTP seem to opt for the "better the devil you know" argument, which is so easily refuted as to be merely a waste of time.

From the Tories' point of view (and you'd know if this'd work better than me), I reckon the way to sell any kind of proportional system to them is to emphasise the possibility of weakening the power of government, and therefore of the state. This won't wash with the parliamentary party, but may go down OK in the shires.

5/13/2005 09:53:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the aim of democracy really fairness? Even if 70% voted for the government, the remaining 30% would have reason to feel that it was unfair that their concerns were not addressed. Democracy is after all about giving power to a majority to rule over everyone including the minorities.

In PR systems there is a fairer link between the choices of the electorate and the allegience of parliamentary representatives, but it is the parties who choose the representatives and therefore demand loyalty (even more so than our system) and minor parties can have undue influence when no major party has overall control.

I think our aim should be more to achieve accountability to the public and demanding that the public interest comes before party loyalty. That is what the FIT Party for Integrity and Trust is about. We are proposing that:
- the upper house should be reformed and empowered to hold parliament and government to account
- the upper house should comprise independent people who do not owe their loyalty to the party machine
- whistleblowers should be protected and their concerns openly investigated
- a culture of putting the public interest first should be engendered so that we reduce collusion with the bureaucracy and governmental power

Judy Weleminsky
(and as part of accountability and openness we should give our true names not hide behind pseudonyms!)

5/13/2005 03:48:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Judy - some good points.

"it is the parties who choose the representatives" - true, but under a modified party list system with multi-member localised constituencies it would be possible for the voters to decide which of each party's candidates they prefer. Gets a bit complicated, true, but it is a way around it.

"demanding that the public interest comes before party loyalty" - as someone who despises the party system, I agree entirely, but sadly I think it will be very hard to shake. MPs should be elected based on their individual stances - people who voted for Glenda Jackson, for example, will have likely done so in the full knowledge that she is likely not to tow the party line. But thanks to the power of the whips, MPs end up being homogenised. This is not healthy in terms of the public interest, but is a necessary evil in the current system if a government is ever going to get legislation through. Under a PR-based system they'd come up with another method, but some kind of group loyalty - be it to the party line or to a multi-party coalition - will almost always win out. cf. Labour's MEPs voting against the Labour party line to keep in with the Socialist Group line over the working time directive in the European Parliament the other day.

"the upper house should comprise independent people who do not owe their loyalty to the party machine" - too right. So do you support a return to the Lords for the hereditary peers? That's pretty much what we used to have under the old system, after all...

"as part of accountability and openness we should give our true names not hide behind pseudonyms!" - ah, but if that openness led to my wonderful employers twigging that I sometimes blog on company time then the accountability could be too high a price to pay...

5/13/2005 04:02:00 pm  

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