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Why Proportionality is not Enough – what ERS has to relearn

March 4, 2013

Since 1884 the Electoral Reform Society, (initially under its former name of the Proportional Representation Society), has campaigned for the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a system which is not only fairly proportional but equally if not more importantly, allows the voter a real chance to influence who is elected , not just which party. Recently however ERS has downgraded its campaign for STV in favour of other constitutional reforms, in spite of the fact that its new Articles of Association retain promotion of STV as the principal object of the society. Ironically, in recent decades our political system has become ever more dysfunctional, and the case for STV has thereby been strengthened.

Although the three main parties in parliament still attract most of the votes, none of them represents the interests of the vast majority of people in Britain. None of them have even suggested that rising inequality is something that needs to be reversed; the watchword has been ‘let them eat credit’. The banking system which should be helping to oil the wheels of the economy, has instead become an instrument used by usurers to enslave the majority of us in debt. None of the main parties will even discuss the remedies available. Ring fencing? – rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!

In his book ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’, Peter Oborne explains such deficiencies in terms of a political class that has become divorced from everyone outside the Westminster bubble.

“A new type of government has emerged in Britain over the last twenty five years. The long tradition of integrity and duty that characterised British public life for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been abandoned and replaced by a form of crony capitalism. Casual corruption, venality, nepotism and mendacity are all on the rise. The distinction between private interest and public good has been lost, and the independence of our great institutions – parliament, the judiciary, the civil service – has come under attack. The effect on British Democracy has been dire.”

That book was written before the 2010 General Election. Tories would no doubt claim that all this is being corrected. Sorry; I do not buy this!

Oborne was not very generous to all those grass roots party workers of all parties whose main or only motivation was the public good as they see it. The problem is that increasingly parliamentary candidates for the main parties are increasingly drawn from those who have made politics their profession. Even those who are still ‘pure’ when first elected face many pressures to follow the party line, and gradually the good of the people tends to get replaced by the good of the party.

If the three main parties have let us down so badly, why do enough people vote for them? Part of the answer is that most are very badly informed by lazy, over-centralised, and corrupt media who mostly print or air the propaganda that those with the longest purses provide. Unfortunately the BBC is little better. There are many stories in the Grauniad for example that the BBC would not cover in a million years.

The other reason for support for the main parties is that voters, at general elections at least, feel a vote for any other party would be a wasted vote. Whereas any proportional system would result in fewer wasted votes and more chance of newer smaller parties gaining representation, voters may be disappointed at the performance of those they elect. As soon as any party secures significant representation in parliament monied interests move in and corrupt the party machine. And in a parliament elected by a list system it is the party machine that commands loyalty.

To avoid this MPs must be loyal to their constituents – not the party machine. For this to happen voters need to be able to choose WHO they elect not just which party prevails. Only STV delivers this.

Such a reform is of course anathema to the Political Class. We have no levers at present to get them to reform the voting system for parliament, but what about local government? There has been much rhetoric about localism, can we argue that we need STV for local elections on that account? There is a good case. Local government should be called local administration. Local authorities have many duties but little discretion. The danger here is incompetence and corruption. In practice too many people stand for election in order to further the interests of their party, as an apprenticeship for a parliamentary career (though no longer the best way in), and to further their own interests. Far from councillors holding officers to account, what happens in the leader plus cabinet model (perhaps the most common model), is that the leader and the chief executive get together and make the decisions. The rest of the cabinet rubber stamp it and the rest of council don’t get a look in. What is needed is independent minded councillors able to hold officers to account. Again only STV can deliver this.

So much for the argument, but how will the Political Class react? If STV were adopted for local government MPs would not be directly affected, so wouldn’t they listen to the merits of the argument? Some clue can be gleaned from what happened to Tory historian Lord Blake’s Bill introduced in the Lords in the 1980s. This Bill would have allowed a local council to adopt STV if it wished, but even this was too much for the government of the time. It went through the Lords without a division but the Tory spokesperson made it clear that it would not be given time in the Commons. Is it likely that an ever more corrupt future government would behave differently? Such a reform might give the plebs ideas above their station. If public opinion had been solidly behind Lord Blake things might have been different, but it was beneath the radar.

So our job is to get the public with us, so that when an opportunity occurs we are more than half way there. In the run up to the 1997 election Charter 88 did not succeed in this and put too much reliance on lobbying, and when Labour won an absolute majority the important items in the Charter 88 agenda were soon abandoned. Once again in the AV referendum, the public had not been prepared, and so were not able to discount the barrage of lies from the No campaign. We have to work at a local level educating the public. ERS’s job should be to co-ordinate and facilitate this effort, and not lay down the law from on high. Many will need training. Not all will want to travel to London for this. Much could be done online.

We should not dismiss the possibility of an opportunity for reform quite soon. There is no way the economy will be sorted out by 2015. Steady growth will not resume and there could be another banking crash. The main three parties have no answers, though others have. ERS members have plumped for a campaign for STV for local elections, and I think this is right in that it is less confrontational than attacking Westminster directly, and if STV for parliament does come onto the agenda our education campaign can easily be redirected.

At the society’s AGM in November five motions in favour of STV for local elections were passed by over 90%. All were supported by council. One of the resolutions was a special resolution DIRECTING council to take specific actions – and yet nothing seems to be happening. It is all very unsatisfactory.

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