Sack the Lords, spank the bankers, and change our corruption-prone electoral system
Once every four-to-five years (that’s roughly two days out of every decade), ordinary British people get to have a very, very, small say in how our country is being run.
For almost all of us, the way that we cast our individual vote will have no actual effect at all on the outcome of the General Election. Just under half the seats in the country have been held by the same political party since 1970. 29% have not changed hands since 1945. If you live in one of these “safe seats”, it is therefore extremely unlikely that your vote will make any difference at all to the result in that local constituency, let alone the outcome at national level.
If you live in a ”safe seat” and happen to support the party that always wins, then at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that your favoured candidate will (if all goes well) go to Parliament and work broadly in line with your own principles.
But even then, unless your MP is also from the party that (as usually happens) wins an overall majority of seats in Parliament, in most cases their work will have no direct impact at all on the laws that actually get passed. Barring the occasional backbench rebellion, the ruling party will always be able to ram through the laws they want to bring in, regardless of your own MP’s views on the issue (and yours, of course).
Every government I’ve ever lived under has in reality been a minority government, supported by significantly less than half of all voters, yet nonetheless enjoying, due to the quirks of our electoral system, a majority of seats in Parliament. At the last election, Labour won just 36% of the vote, but nonetheless gained absolute power in Parliament with a majority of 66 seats. At this election, it’s still quite possible that the Conservatives could take full control of the Commons with a similarly miniscule proportion of the vote.
It’s perhaps inevitable, given human nature, that an MP with a “safe seat” will tend to worry far less about their constituents’ needs and far more about their own, than those struggling to defend a razor-thin margin. The blogger Mark Thompson has shown a clear correlation between the size of an MP’s majority, and their likelihood of stealing from taxpayer by cheating on their expenses.
Under our current system, most voters, most of the time, will end up with an MP they didn’t vote for, and a government they actively voted against. The really unlucky ones will be stuck with a Parliamentarian who is patently uninterested in their constituents, incompetent, dishonest or outright corrupt, but almost impossible to get rid of because of the size of their majority.
It seems to me that this wholesale disenfranchisement of most people from the political system is what really lies behind the disenchantment that most people now feel towards the political system.
Our media elite seems keen to drum into us the mantra that “the voters are apathetic”, that young people aren’t interested in politics, and that the bulk of the UK population would much rather take part in the X-Factor than vote in an election. Implicit in this seems to be the assumption that it’s the people who are letting the system down, rather than vice versa (though from the writings of some newspaper columnists, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that many of them rather prefer it this way).
Yet at the same time, the UK’s biggest newspapers remain vociferously opposed (to comical extremes, in some cases) to any kind of electoral reform, wanting us to believe that the political system that brought us the poll tax, the Iraq war, and the expenses scandal is the best that we can hope for.
The reason for this is fairly clear – clearest of all, perhaps, with the Murdoch media group, who make little attempt to disguise what they’re up to. Under our current electoral system – where small, unrepresentative, elites compete with each other for a “winner takes all” victory, and where tiny shifts in public opinion can determine which of those elites gains the upper hand – the large media conglomerates get to play the role of kingmaker, and set their terms accordingly.
In the words of David Yelland, who edited Murdoch’s Sun newspaper for 4 years:
The fact is that much of the print press in this country is entirely partisan and always has been. All proprietors and editors are part of the “great game”. The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister…So, as the pendulum swings from red to blue and back to red, the newspapers, or many of them, swing with it – sometimes ahead of the game and sometimes behind.
Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.
We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless…
It seems to me that when there is no one political party able to muster the support of more than 50% of the public, it’s simply common sense that two or more parties that collectively do represent a majority of voters should try to work together. It’s a system that seems to work quite well in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Norway, and many other countries around the world, and it’s one that leaves far fewer people disenfranchised than the “winner takes all” system we have to endure. I’m not surprised Rupert Murdoch is so afraid of it.
I voted this morning in the full knowledge that I was doing little more than signing a rather well-publicised petition. On this occasion I lent my support to the party which, in my view, seems to have the strongest position on electoral reform, replacing the corrupt and unelected House of Lords with a genuinely democratic second chamber, protecting freedom of speech, and taking serious action against the corrupt bankers who have brought our economy to the brink of collapse.
My vote will almost certainly make no difference at all to the result even in my own constituency – but given that this is the only chance we have in five years it seemed important to make the most of it. I’d urge you to do the same, if you haven’t already. Flawed though the system is, failing to vote merely vindicates the media’s conviction that politics is not for the likes of us.