Henry McLeish: What's the matter with Westminster?

For the majority of people, voting is their only link with the complex structure, of democracy, politics and governance that helps shape our society and makes sense of the tough process of arriving at collective decisions out of a bewildering array of multiple and competing, interests, opinions, ideas, and life styles.

The two Greek words, “demos” and “kratos”, the rule or power of the people, have become symbolic of an inspiring and powerful but remarkably difficult idea to deliver. It was Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address who said, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”.

How do these lofty ideals reflect what is happening at Westminster, post-election? How can a Conservative Party with 29 per cent of the eligible votes cast on 
8 June, form a government? Why do 60 per cent of those who did vote, but voted for other parties, end up having little influence on how Britain is run in the next five years? Can it be right that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with 279,000 votes and ten seats, be influential in shaping the future of Britain future?

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More to the point, we are seeing government of the party, by the party, for the party, where narrow partisan party politics eclipse any notion of the national interest, further diminish the credibility of our democracy, and allow an “elected dictatorship” to function when 71 per cent of all voters did not support the Conservatives or the DUP! The injustices and inconsistencies of our electoral system run deep.

The struggle for universal suffrage, or the right to vote, was a great victory for working people and remains the most important means at their disposal to influence their own lives, the fortunes of their families and indeed the course of history.

Despite the efforts of the Whigs and Tories, privileged elites, the power of “nobles, burgesses, and shire commissioners” before them, and ideas such as the “40 shilling free holders”, the struggle for universal voting rights became unstoppable, but was only completely achieved in 1969. For the founding fathers in the US and the privileged classes in Britain, extending the franchise was fraught with problems. More fear of the people, than power of the people, where the idea of “mobocracy” and the “behaviour of the masses” was a threat to elites.

In the modern era, the “first past the post” system for Westminster elections is archaic, politically repressive, unfair and unrepresentative.

The lack of a written constitution means that absolute power remains with Westminster, not the people.

The younger generation is crying out to be listened to, but Westminster will not extend the franchise or give a voice to 16- year-olds.

The ideas of consensus, co-operation, and coalition, unlike Europe, are not part of the Westminster discourse.

Proportional representation would help fix our broken politics, strengthen a weak democracy, and tackle the remoteness of governance.

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Reforming the voting system for Westminster is however not on the agenda. The status quo has preserved the dominance of Labour and the Conservatives, reinforced partisanship, and, despite the emergence of a multi-party system, made millions of votes worthless in terms of political impact and fairness. This is a rigged system.

Continental Europe is showing the way forward. Post-war forms of proportional voting have overcome much of the tribalism that is the hallmark of Westminster and has resulted in a better match between votes cast, political party representation, the composition of government and successful coalitions.

The defeat of the modest “Alternative Vote” system in a referendum in 2011 is only of significance to the point that this was a sham, a concession to the Lib Dems in the Tory coalition, with little support from the two major parties.

Voting is a powerful and undervalued democratic right in Britain. Often the media, right wing politicians and those obsessed with the “market” ignore the importance of our democracy, our politics, and our governance and remain content with first past the post, which dominates and distorts the consequences of voting and ensures millions of votes don’t matter.

Mark Twain quipped, “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it”. In Britain millions of people may have taken this to heart. From 1997, 30 to 40 per cent of the electorate haven’t bothered to vote in Westminster elections. In 2015, the SNP won 50 per cent of the vote but picked up 95 per cent of the seats in Scotland.

In similar vein, Ukip received nearly four million votes and only one MP. This doesn’t make any sense. The Tory victory in the 2015 general election meant they formed the government with just over a third of the votes cast and only slightly over a quarter of those eligible to vote in the UK. This was repeated a few weeks ago. There is now an undeniable case for change: the worth of a vote and the value of voting are at stake.

In today’s volatile political climate, the political, social, economic and cultural challenges demand a more inclusive, fairer and representative system of voting. Our politics are crying out for a civilised approach, cooperation, progressive coalitions, and consensus. It beggars belief that in 2017 we hold on to the ideas that each manifesto is unique and precious, that each party has a monopoly of wisdom to solve every problem, and that supporting or working with another party is a sign of weakness. People don’t think like this. This is not the European way. First past the post only reinforces this state of delusion.

But change is difficult. The status quo serves the self-interest of the two big parties. Their case against change is plausible but flawed. Simplicity, speed, MP-voters link, decisive results, and strong and stable government, are seen as advantages. First past the post has substantial weaknesses. MPs and governments elected without majority votes, parties that win large numbers of votes but obtain few seats, and smaller parties under represented or not represented in the House of Commons. Key institutions of our democracy –parties, parliaments, and elections – do not command enough trust or respect.

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Our politics and our electoral system are not coping. Proportional representation voting, votes for 16-year-olds to give them a greater say in the intergenerational debate, and transferring power to the people in a written constitution are long overdue.

Voters are serious people, and as citizens not consumers, recognise the fact that politics, democracy, and governance have profound consequences for their lives. Abandoning first past the post for Westminster elections is the next step in the struggle for voting rights. Let’s learn from Europe.

The worth of a vote should never be underestimated or abused.