Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going