Electoral reform alone won’t resuscitate politics
In a sweaty Westminster room, Tim Black joined 60 Tories who talked more about how we vote than what we vote for.
To a casual interloper, a discussion of electoral reform, organised by the Conservative-leaning campaign group Bright Blue, held in a dark, hot and strangely chairless room a few streets away from the Palace of Westminster, could have appeared, well, a bit seditious. Perhaps it was the sound of so much plotting and planning. Or perhaps it was the use of what sounded like code with unfamiliar acronyms like ‘AV’, ‘STV’, ‘MMS’, circulated with as much speed as the wine. Whatever it was, the whiff of a 60-strong group of excited but discontented Tories (for the most part) hung heavy in the air. Drawing heavily on this pungent brew, Tory MP Douglas Carswell felt moved to declare: ‘Having entered parliament a Conservative, I now find myself a radical.’
With deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s recent announcement that a referendum on the UK’s current voting system will be held on 5 May next year, it seems that such radicals’ time has come. ‘We have a window of opportunity’, came the voice of a local councillor form the back of the room, ‘to build a two-, possibly three-party coalition in favour of AV [Alternative Vote]’. The excitement was palpable. It was now a very, very hot room.
Electoral reform is a somewhat perplexing issue, because at first glance, proportional representation seems like sensible idea. As a number of people pointed out, the first past the post system (FPTP) by which we currently elect MPs renders a lot of people’s votes redundant. For example, if you vote for one party in a constituency dominated by another, the dominant party’s candidate will be elected, and your vote will mean nothing. Replicated in constituencies across the country, this situation means that there are a lot of votes that will not find representation in parliament. A form of proportional representation, multi-member constituencies, for example, would change that. As Keith Best, the former Conservative MP for Ynys Môn, said, ‘wherever you live, your vote will count towards the make-up of the government of the country’. Born-again Thatcherites in Liverpool and Dennis Skinner-supporters in Surrey will finally have their voice.
So, electoral reform might not be undesirable. Indeed, if tinkering with the way in which we elect our political representatives will make things more democratic, if it allows the will of the people to be better expressed, then that does appear to be a good thing. After all, Labour won the 2005 General Election with just 35.3 per cent of the vote, and the support of just 21.6 per cent of the total electorate.
Yet to make real sense of the current discussion around electoral reform, it is almost best to put aside the technical debate. This is because questions as to whether the single transferable vote is preferable to the alternative vote do not explain why electoral reform has, almost overnight, become such an urgent issue. One thing is certain in this regard: the rise of the electoral reform issue is not the result of popular pressure. Despite the constant talk of democracy, the demos have been almost absent from this discussion. Which for advocates of a change to our voting system is probably for the best given that a recent YouGov poll had public support for electoral reform at just 32 per cent.
This goes against the grain of history. In the past electoral reform has gone hand in hand with mass discontent. The Great Reform Act of 1832, for instance, was not so much an act of benevolence from Britain’s rulers, as an act of necessity. Even then, though it extended the franchise, abolished many rotten and pocket boroughs and gave industrial towns such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham electoral representation, it was neither as Great nor as Reforming as its title suggests. By 1839, just 858,270 men were allowed to vote. It was this lack of enfranchisement, this lack of democracy, that prompted over one-and-a-half million men to sign the People’s Charter – a set of demands from universal male suffrage to the payment of MPs that took 80 years to be met.
Yet in the humid environs of a street-level room in Westminster, the people were not the subject but the object of the discussion. One woman’s defence of FPTP caught the mood. It was not a good idea to change the voting system, she said, because the other voting systems, particularly if you have to rank politicians in order of preference, will prove just too complicated. While many were reluctant to endorse such open snobbery, they permitted it to exist at the level of gentle condescension. ‘People are conservative with a small P, er, with a small C’, Keith Best said, possibly cryptically, probably subconsciously, before concluding ‘[people] are frightened of change’. Except, Keith, when they are the agents of change. It might well be that far from being naturally conservative, we are just not that keen on having change forced upon us.
Either way, what became clear during this discussion of electoral reform was that the people are conceived as the problem. And as such, changing the voting system becomes a solution, a way to fix us. This is why a technical discussion about voting systems becomes something else. It becomes a panacea, a way to cure, in the words of Bright Blue’s Ryan Shorthouse, voter apathy, to raise turnout, to empower people and to restore trust in politicians. And how does it do this? Through the market mechanisms of choice and competition. Little wonder, Douglas Carswell’s analogy of choice was shopping: instead of the ‘mass consumer brands’ of Labour and Conservative of the twentieth century, a system of proportional representation will provide a genuine ‘niche politics’.
This captures the quintessence of the current fascination with electoral reform. Changing the voting system currently appears to segments of the British political class as the road to restoring some sense of its legitimacy. The public here function not as the source of sovereignty, the crucible of the democratic will, but as consumers, passive recipients of political parties’ wares. There was no sedition in Westminster then, no stirring of the radical impulse. There was just the whiff of desperation.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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