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Stop the rot

Responses from Salma Yaqoob and Peter Tatchell, Mark Serwotka

September 23, 2009
7 min read

Punching our weight

Electoral reform would open up the space to build a new pluralist left, argues Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob

Just as politics seemed at its most frozen, the demand for proportional representation has forced itself back onto the political agenda. The immediate cause can be found among the wreckage of public trust in parliament following the expenses scandal. Safe seats no longer seem so safe. The local versions of one-party states appear only to encourage greater cynicism and apathy. PR has gathered new supporters as the search goes on for a ‘big idea’ to reconnect with the voters.

Proportional representation (PR) is not a panacea. There is good and bad in every electoral arrangement. My constituents in Sparkbrook beat a path to my door with petitions about housing or council services, not alternatives to our voting system. It is ideas, the contest between them, and the commitment to implement them, that will really breathe life back into our political system.

PR matters because its implementation will allow more genuinely democratic expression and enable progressive opinion to better punch its weight.

Official politics has become a version of Prime Minister’s Question Time in which insult has replaced ideology. Only a handful of MPs are willing to speak out for a radical and progressive alternative. Most people were against the illegal war on Iraq. But parliament voted it through. Many people were revolted at the unfairness of handing billions to greedy bankers while leaving them in control of our economy. But our voting system squeezes out radical voices and rewards the useless but loyal MP.

There is a potential majority in society for the kind of progressive change that I want to see, and that many in the Labour Party, Green Party and others want to see as well. But it is increasingly hard to see how that majority can express itself in a political system that is increasingly stagnant. Those who share the values of peace, equality and social justice, need to come together. A voting system that is genuinely proportional offers us the chance of putting these ideas into practice.

To break the dominance of the discredited political establishment we need a fair voting system.

Finish the Chartist process

Changing the electoral system will open the door to new left and green MPs and a more democratic, representative parliament, says Green Party candidate Peter Tatchell

At the 2005 general election, Labour won 35 per cent of the vote – but bagged 55 per cent of the seats. This is not democracy. It is reminiscent of the gerrymandering and ballot-rigging of two centuries ago that galvanised the Chartists to campaign for a democratic, representative parliament.

Every government since 1945 has taken power on a minority of votes. None has won majority public support. The electoral process is rigged. In 2005, it took 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. The Greens got no MPs at all. Not since the rotten boroughs of the 18th century have elections been so debauched.

This democratic deficit is a direct result of the first-past-the-post voting system, which allows the election of MPs and governments with minority support. It serves the two big establishment parties well, ensuring that power alternates between them, to the exclusion of left and green alternatives.

FPTP enabled Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win landslide majorities based on popular votes of a mere 35 per cent to 44 per cent. If there was a fairer, proportional voting system, we would never have had the Thatcher-Major governments and, as a result, never had New Labour and the ditching of socialism under Blair and Brown; probably no anti-union laws, post office closures, Trident, privatisation or Iraq war.

Britain has a left-of-centre majority. With proportional representation, the Tories would never rule alone again, thereby preventing a repeat of their Thatcherite excesses. We’d see the election of MPs representing the Greens and radical left parties, as happened under Scotland’s PR system. This would shift the political centre leftwards. Labour would be radicalised because it would have to rule in coalition with lefts, greens or Lib Dems (who, despite their flaws, are more left-leaning than Labour on most issues).

We need a parliament that reflects the people’s will; where the proportion of seats won corresponds to the proportion of votes cast. This means finishing the parliamentary reform process begun by the Chartists. What’s required is a new Great Electoral Reform Act to secure a representative parliament.

The Scottish Parliament election system is a practical example of a fairer electoral process. Electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party list. This combines the accountability of single member constituencies with additional ‘top-up’ MPs based on the total list vote received by each party. Thus it ensures proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it secures. The result? Scottish Socialist Party and Green MSPs. This system works in Scotland – why can’t we have it at Westminster?

That’s why I’m backing the ‘Vote for a Change’ campaign, which is calling for a referendum on voting reform on same day as the next general election. Polls show that a majority of people want change. Let the people decide. It’s called democracy.

www.petertatchell.net

Count them in

First-past-the-post voting makes it harder for trade union voices to be heard, argues PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka

Four years ago PCS launched the Make Your Vote Count campaign. We didn’t recommend any party or candidate, but in order to engage with the parties and their candidates, on issues relating to the public services, we asked them questions and published their views to our members.

It has been a revealing experience in many ways. It exposed the democratic deficit at the heart of the electoral process. The outcome of general elections is really decided by the behaviour of ‘swing voters’ in marginal seats rather than by the majority of the electorate. This undermines democracy. At the moment polls are showing a huge disenchantment with the three main UK political parties, yet we can be certain that between them they will win in just about every English parliamentary constituency.

Our experience of campaigning in defence of public services led to a debate about the need for fairer voting systems. Our conference last year came down decisively in favour of a more proportional system so that every vote counts. This year we went further and decided to launch a consultation exercise across the union to test support for a much more active political strategy, based on another lesson learned through Make Your Vote Count.

On key issues, such as privatisation, the main political parties have policies that are essentially the same. Polling continually shows that privatisation is unpopular – but who do you vote for? I believe a distorted voting system is partly responsible for this lack of choice. It is much harder for our voice to be heard, even though we are a national mass membership organisation. This seems to be the general trade union experience. I was very struck by the frustrations expressed at the recent conferences of unions that are affiliated to Labour. Our consultation could lead to PCS supporting or standing candidates in certain circumstances.

I welcome the wider recognition of the democratic deficit that has come out of the wave of anger from the exposure of MPs’ expenses. We must ensure that interest in PR is not just temporary as it has been on past occasions. Polling now suggests that the Tories may form the next government with just a 30 per cent share of the vote. That would be no mandate for unprecedented public spending cuts that would wreck the economy and destroy our remaining welfare state. It is a problem we can’t afford to ignore.

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