Elections: Time for change?
This week on Facebook: Having returned a blank voting form in the recent general election, perhaps the result provided me with a brief moment of schadenfreude in that it brought about party political, and most importantly, electoral anarchy. It also confounded the pundits who are now trying to rationalise the result and the electoral reformists who are trying to capitalise on it. What seems to be lacking in articles on electoral reform is the notion of making members of parliament (MPs) responsible to the whole of their electorate and giving a voice to the increasing rise in the electorate who spoil their voting slip or who withhold their votes completely.
Those withholding their votes (excluding deliberately spoilt voting slips) reached 40.6% in 2001 and while it fell back to 31.3% last week, the percentage of the total electorate (100%) this represents still exceeds the popular vote achieved by either the Conservatives or Labour. Since 1945 those withholding their vote has only fallen below 20% in 1950 and 1951 elections, the 1951 general election providing a real case for electoral reform¹.
An election is held so that voters choose an MP to represent their constituency in parliament, this means all of them and not just those on the electoral roll who — for the most part — may cast their vote as supporters (even if not members) of a political party. It is also conveniently ignored that MPs are only elected to serve in office for possibly (at the most) a period of five years only, after which they must again compete with other contenders for the endorsement of the constituents in a general election.
In his book The Rise of Political Lying Peter Oborne writes that being ‘economical with the truth’ has become almost a jokey euphemism for the political lie — a cosy insider’s phrase for the disingenuousness that is now accepted as part and parcel of political life. At what point, if we have not reached it already, will we cease to believe a word politicians say?
The recent general election suggest’s that we have not yet reached that point and are — perhaps — never likely to. It may be that the electorate recognises that statements made at the hustings or included in a manifesto may or cannot fulfilled, and are simply an indication of political intent. Nevertheless, when it is not in a marginal constituency, the electoral vote is determined on party political lines and constituents loyal to the party rarely vote against a politician nominated by the party, regardless of any unfulfilled declarations of intent or broken manifesto promises.
In The Triumph of the Political Class, Oborne reveals that politicians no longer go into politics to serve the public and that notions of the greater good and “putting something back” now seem absurdly idealistic, such is the pervasiveness of cynicism in our politics and politicians². Oborne asks: But in these allegedly enlightened times should we not know better? Do we not deserve better from those who seek our electoral approval?
British politicians have rarely been so ridiculed and despised, and that should worry us all. Mail Online — David Blunkett September 2012
Although many of the allusions in the Election series prints presuppose an insider’s knowledge of the politics, procedures, and characters of the time, Hogarth’s witty and scathing take on the craziness that can surround the democratic process is timeless. [Lisa Small — Brooklyn Museum 2012]
The rotten boroughs alluded to in Hogarth’s Election Series are no longer UK constituencies, at least in the sense of having an electorate so small that all those having a vote could be bought. Nevertheless, parliamentary seats are still bought by political parties who promise constituents munificence courtesy of the taxes that they intend to collect. Blunkett’s article in the Mail Online reminded me of Hogarth and the fact that the public’s perception of the political process may not have changed a lot since Hogarth’s time. Relieving Blunkett of his worry is clearly something disingenuous politicians could address³. The rest of us all — not just those forming the electorate — for the most part still hold a cynical view of the behaviours and traits associated with a political class that Hogarth presented in his election series.
Monday 21/6/2017 Our democratic operating systems aren’t working: here’s how to upgrade them: In our digital age, we need to upgrade our democratic operating system. In the wake of the contradictory and surprising decisions we’ve seen taken this year, I would like to see a conversation emerge not about the decisions, but the process by which these decisions are made.
Tuesday 13/6/2017 This election will sweep away the old politics: The 2017 election will see a step along the path to the realignment of British politics. The only thing remaining to be discovered is how big a step.
Wednesday 14/6/2017 Britain’s great divide: The north has wealthy suburbs, like South Wirral, west of Liverpool. They vote Labour. The south has impoverished pockets, like north-east Kent. They vote Conservative. It is as though political opinions derive from the air people breathe. And regional success and failure are self-reinforcing.
Thursday 15/6/2017 MPs face fight for a seat in 2020: Boundary changes happen roughly every decade, but this is likely to result in the biggest shake-up of our political map in anyone’s lifetime. First, it is trying to ensure each of our votes has the same value in choosing an MP. At the moment, voter numbers vary wildly, from 21,769 in the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar) to 108,804 on the Isle of Wight.
Friday 16/6/2017 Back to the future? It could be the case that Corbyn’s Labour party has been hoisted on the petard of Blair’s New Labour party devolution policies.
¹ If you take the registered electorate as 100%, there is only one occasion that a political party achieved more than 40% of the registered electorate vote. In 1951 Labour polled 40.24% of the registered electorate vote (48.78% of the popular vote) on a turnout of 82.6%. Labour ‘lost’ the election to the Conservatives who received only 39.58% of the registered electorate vote (47.97% of the popular vote). [The Conservative ‘win’ was due to the electoral boundaries in place at the time].
²The Politics of Electoral Reform in Britain (pdf): The debate about electoral reform in Britain has experienced periodic revivals, as critics have challenged the established system of first past the post. The debate has revolved about how British elections translate votes into seats, and how representative elections should work: whether priority should be given to the principle of strong government or “fairness” to minor parties and social groups. The article concludes that despite a heated debate, prospects for reform are uncertain in Britain, since public opinion about this issue remains ambivalent; there are no provisions for binding referendums; and the opposition remains divided about the most appropriate alternative.
³Making Minority Government Work (pdf): The leader of the largest party would normally be expected to lead the government, but there are no constitutional reasons why this must be the case. The guiding principle is who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. That is normally subject to an early test in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. To enhance public understanding of the government formation process, one sensible reform would be to hold an ‘investiture’ vote in parliament (as in Scotland) at which MPs select the Prime Minister. The person nominated would then be appointed by the Queen to lead the new government. Doing the process this way round would help avoid any risk of the Monarch being drawn into political controversy.
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