There is a strong traditional case for ditching our traditional voting system. Like many British traditions, is basically doesn’t work as the tradition apparently intends.
Whatever people think elections are, constitutionally and objectively they are about picking MPs who are representative in a parliament, which then decides whether to support a given government. It’s more complex than picking a president, and rightly so in my view. It encourages people to think more about what a local representative will do.
As long as we maintain a system of Parliamentary assent and consent, it’s important that those elected to it represent who people want to sit there.
The moral as well as the traditional case is strong, and I think but the mainstream and ‘outside’ left would profit greatly if they argue it.
For me this is not a side note to economic policy, but in the chartist model; it’s an acceptance that the constitutional and the economic cannot be divorced.
Fair representation should not just be a middle class demand of liberal ideology, but should also be a demand of those whose needs are deflected and put aside by the use of first past the post to prevent alliances and empower a small minority of voters over the vast majority who are denied representation. As well as being a key demand of e progressive middle class, fairer voting and more power between elections are both key to improving the loves of people who are distant from political power, who without fair representation are less able to content with the financial power other people control.
The current voting system is meant to empower voters in the centre, but it does not even do that, because voters in the centre are richer on average the the wider political centre of the public.
The current system has three inbuilt biases. The first is that of ‘parliamentary dictatorship’, which I would argue is in itself a way of making parliament unresponsive and unreflective of changes in public opinion. This dictatorship aspect is beloved of many of the the ‘signposts’ of old; Bennites, Neoliberals, and authoritarians of various kinds.
But the result of such a dictatorship in a constitutional sense has an inbuilt bias of itself, towards the ‘swing voter’, no matter how far leftward or rightward the country has moved. It makes any democratic programme unpopular overall by disenfranchising the majority of people who are not swing voters.
But more than that, within this bias there is another bias, and that is against working class and otherwise less well off voters, and against younger voters, neither of whom are as likely to turn out, for many reasons other than direct political choice.
This means that even with the swing of politics right and left, the general trend is towards a slow drift towards richer voters than the average person. Breaking this system for one in which the flanks have as much power as swing voters after an election needs to be a key demand of anyone who wants to stop this happening – in short, of both left liberals and the politically mainstream working class.
For the Bennite left, the logic is now supporting the system of an elective dictatorship which is set up so that they are deliberately hedged out of being able to run it.
This is a plainly absurd tradition to maintain strategically, but especially given the cultural victory of Thatcherism. It’s happened and much of the hard left operates on the assumption that it has not, which again, is stupidly stubborn.
It also patronises voters and seeks to lead them, rather than being led by them from below. Which you would think is a pretty un-Bennite approach for the man himself to have taken.
Last of all, it should also be a demand both of the far left, far right, and absolute centre. The former two because without it, even with millions of voters, the influence they exert will be nil. Hilariously parties on the far out flanks of politics never prioritise this basic strategic fact. But fairer votes would also open up the potential of centre-parties, and ‘absolute centrists’ would not have to spend their time cajoling members of parties formed for other purposes to drop their own politics to adopt a centrist agenda. They could simply state what they believe and try to build their own public support. If they are successful, in the same way that a successful left party could pull social democrats leftwards, they could play a moderating role. If, say, both centrists and Marxists became necessary for social democrats to govern, both could partner with social democrats with a frank admission that this is roughly the mean of what the majority of the public have voted for.
Better an honest coalition which is built on genuinely overlapping values than one like that which has defined e last five years. And better for working people that they have somewhere to go and someone to influence things in their favour if social democrats stray from their interests. Better a centrist party which sells itself as a centrist party, rather than centrist faction who try to contain and disempower everyone else and remove choice from the system. Basically, in all politics there will be trading and competition, but we can do it more honestly in parliaments. We can also avoid being forced to tactically vote to keep our enemy out, and simply vote in order of preference. We can say more honestly as voters what we think, too.
Recall and a more delegate-like system of representation would also empower the people who have lost out the most from the government of the last 35 years, with their hard years at the start and election giveaways at the end.
Fair votes and recall are both part of a historic mission on the left, that is, a modern take on the Chartist tradition. Fairly reflecting votes cast in seats gained, as well as the power to recall those who break their promises or prove to be inadequate in the eyes of the electorate completes the mission partly met by the Great Reform Act. Of course, circumstances change and promises at elections must sometimes be broken. Who would keep the golden rule when a bank bailout is on the cards?
But politicians should be prepared to stake their positions on such decisions around the time they are made, and the public should be a final arbiter of them more often. Without that, how can people who fear they may heavily lose out exert any influence at all?
The final thing about both fair votes and recall is about safe seats. They can exist under some list systems of election, for sure, but under others are easily managed out. And let’s be fair about it. There are good people in politics. But when it comes to the system they exist in, it should still be designed well. No politician should have to exist without being forced to respect their electorate.
Again, this needs to be a workers’ and progressives’ demand as well as one of general good sense. Think about who benefits most from thorough casework and visible politicians instead of people concentrating on how ye will get into the cabinet in ten years time. Think about who benefits from politicians needing wider support from swing voters, and having to be known locally as well as having the right rosette. Everyone. But mostly those more disenfranchised.
Nothing I am saying here is to suggest that there should not be a constituency link.
But firstly, constituency based representation does not have to be as disproportionate as the current system. Secondly, PR works well in, say, Scottish local government. It means that representative have to cover a wider area, but also that they have to compete more widely given that their seats become less safe. We can have mixed system of constituency and proportional reps, anyway, which I favour, because both proportional and localist arguments have merit but can be contradictory. Systematic reform has options to acknowledge and respect this, for example AMS and AV+.
And again, recall keeps people on their toes and increases the incentive to actually try to built and keep local support, even under full PR.
There are traditional parliamentarian, practical and quality, and honesty and ideology arguments for PR, preferential voting, and mixed systems. A system which is more reflective and with recall will generally be more honest and accountable even when it comes to the politics of close runs and coalitions. This benefits everyone, but it particularly benefits those who aren’t in the centre of the electorate, which in any event is right of the general centre in the country, and tacks in that direction.
So a systematic change which would benefit everyone also disproportionately benefits the working class, liberal idealists, and radical parties. There is a good coalition to build there washing looks like an increasing necessity for all parts of politics which are not the Conservative party or the SNP, who in any case are formally in favour of fairer votes.
It greatly disenfranchises politicians who are serving time, or ignore their electorate, or try to surprises the wider election in favour of small fractions of the population that EU personally like.
But what are the argument for the current unrepresentative system?
What are the arguments for low accountability between elections?
So given all of this, the hollowing crisis of politics as it is, the fixing of the system by the Tories, and the various traditions in which democratic reform sits, why does nobody seem to think that all of this is very important?