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Too important to leave to the politicians

The present crisis of confidence in parliament is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the system, argues Willie Sullivan, director of the new campaign Vote for a Change

September 23, 2009
6 min read

The MPs’ expenses scandal has triggered a widespread recognition that something is rotten at the heart of democracy, and in its wake has followed a public clamour for change. It has led to a deluge of proposals on how politics needs to be reformed. But who trusts the current Westminster residents to put their own house in order?

One thing is certain – such change is not realistically on offer at the next general election. Politicians can’t be properly held to account under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. Too many MPs already know that however badly they might have behaved, their jobs are effectively protected, as even a political earthquake of the kind we saw in 1945 or 1997 will not be sufficient to eject them from their safe seats. To many potential voters the prospect of an outright Conservative majority on a minority share of the vote seems like a mere changing of the guard rather than the root-and-branch reform our politics so desperately requires.

Behind the public anger over expenses is a broader feeling that political parties are all part of the same game and have grown totally out of touch with the needs of everyday people.

With Gordon Brown’s majority potentially resting on as few as 8,000 critically-placed swing voters in super-marginal seats, many voters are recognising that with FPTP their votes are discounted before the election even takes place. Some areas have effectively become ‘one party states’ where no effective contest takes place, since the seat can be regarded as safe or ‘unwinnable’. Electoral calculus has prompted the mainstream parties to compete over the same congested space at the centre ground, while working-class voters in traditionally safe Labour seats have been increasingly marginalised.

This situation is playing right into the hands of far-right extremists such as the BNP. Incredibly, defenders of ‘politics as usual’ are responding to far-right gains in the Euro elections by closing ranks – maintaining the status quo that has effectively shut out millions of voters. To close down the space in which the BNP thrives we need to break the stranglehold of the Westminster establishment and allow a new politics to emerge in its place.

The loud calls for fundamental changes to our political system have already forced Gordon Brown into a statement accepting the need to ‘take forward’ the debate on electoral reform. But without any details, without a process, and in the total absence of any timelines, this may well be just another attempt kick difficult issues into the long grass.

An end to the club

Apologies to Clemenceau, but politics is just too important to be left to politicians. We have already seen the consequences of allowing Westminster to be run as a gentlemen’s club, operating under its own rules.

The decision over how best to elect MPs, and ensure that parliament is seen as more legitimate, more accountable and more representative, simply cannot be left in the hands of an increasingly remote political class. That’s why we’ve brought together the ‘Vote for a Change’ campaign to give people a say on changing the voting system in a referendum – to be held not later than the day of the next general election.

Unlike MPs, we would like to credit voters with a pretty good idea of what they want from their politics and their politicians. If we act swiftly we can establish a jury of ordinary citizens to examine the merits of the different options and put a recommendation before their peers.

We have to take the choice of system put before the electorate out of the hands of the vested interests, and don’t need any proposal that is too popular – and for that read too easy – for the current crop at Westminster. Like other citizens, our MPs will have to learn to make sacrifices – be it their safe seats or the cheap theatre that passes for scrutiny in the Commons.

Of course, in order to get them to grant a referendum we need to build support among these self-same MPs. But they will only be moved by the force of public pressure, so it is vital to go beyond the reach of the Westminster parties. Already the Green Party and Respect have pledged their support, and members of these parties have an important role to play. But it is vital, too, that we reach out to the significant section of the electorate that no longer identifies with any political party.

Critical to the effectiveness of the campaign will be bringing together a wide range of campaign groups, activist networks, civic society bodies, trade unionists and faith communities to voice a powerful demand for change. Leading figures in groups such as Greenpeace and the World Development Movement have signed up to the campaign. They know that a future Conservative government (or a Labour one for that matter) with a large unrepresentative majority could simply ignore demands for progressive policies even if there was a clear majority in the country behind them. The voting system defines the whole political environment – and it should be a concern for every group that might seek government support for their agendas.

But time is short. Opponents of change will be hoping that the present wave of interest in reforming the democratic system will give way to other concerns. We must not less this opportunity pass. While there is still a window for Labour to redeem the promise it made in its 1997 manifesto, it is vital to keep up the pressure and demonstrate the extent of public support.

A ComRes opinion poll for the Independent (2 June 2009) suggested that 69 per cent of those interviewed supported moving to proportional representation for Westminster elections. The fact that the government has felt compelled to return to the subject means that it is starting to feel the heat. Now is the time to raise the temperature still further.

To sign up to the campaign or get more involved visit www.voteforachange.co.uk

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