Gordon Brown has proposed that future elections to the Commons be held by the Alternative Vote, which would not take effect until after this year’s general election, as a way to revitalise British politics after the MPs’ expenses scandal. Brown’s proposal to hold a referendum by October 2011 is to let voters decide whether to keep the current First Past the Post system for electing MPs or change it.
Where do we start?
Let us address the issue of voter disenchantment.
That voters are disenchanted is the inevitable consequence of:
1. The expenses scandal (more of that later)
2. Handing more and more powers over to Brussels.
3. The sheer lack of choice available. British politics argues vigorously over a relatively small spectrum of political issues. There is a saying that the politics of Britain are forged in the big battalions. This is largely the case. The two main parties, Conservatives and Labour are rightly seen by the majority of British voters as being the two alternative governments. This to a great degree explains why most voters either vote for one or the other. They regard voting for other parties (Liberal Democrats, UKIP, BNP, Greens and others) as a “wasted vote” – much to the chagrin of these smaller parties. However to analyse the rationale behind the idea that a vote is “wasted” if cast for other than for one of the two main parties holds a certain logic. British votes have by and large a curious “love-hate” relationship with their unfair “First Past the Post” voting system. The average Briton, whatever their social class, has a basic sense of fair play and natural justice. This is why they will always lend a sympathetic ear to the Liberal-Democrats (and others) protests about it.
There is no doubt that when there are more than two candidates First Past the Post is not representative and is unfair. Merely to say – as does Cameron – that it produces strong government not in itself justification for it. After all, Saddam Hussein believed and practised “strong government” as did Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot!
Before moving on to what could and should replace the First Past the Post system, let us examine this system by looking at how it works in the U.S.A.
The play-write and wit Oscar Wilde famously said of the relationship between the U.S.A. and the U.K.; “two peoples divided by a common language…” What he was referring to was the differences between the two. The First Past the Post system is called “the two party system” in the U.S.A. Whilst technically incorrect, the U.S. descriptor can be said to be more accurate in describing the effect the system has.
However, merely to have a two horse race in every constituency – by the simple expedient of implementing the Second Ballot system, would not of itself cure the problem that is at the core of British politics. Nor would the problem be solved if the Liberal-Democrat’s preferred Single Transferrable Vote – arguably the best representative voting system there is – were implemented for elections to the Commons.
This is because the problem goes deeper than how the country elects its MPs. It is about the nature of those MPs themselves.
The problem with British politics stems not from the way we elect our politicians but who we elect.
The core problem is the party system itself. Back in the nineteenth century, after the Great Reform Act of 1832, British politics worked quite well. This was because those who took part in it were drawn from a small and exclusive group. British politicians were either scions of the great aristocratic families or rich and successful men who had “made a name for themselves” wither in commerce or the professions. These were men of substance. Men of independent means.
Most of today’s politicians are anything but. They are generally careerists. Sons and daughters of generally middle class parents who read politics at university, became political assistants and/or local councillors whilst working for a quasi-political organisation, such as a charity or well funded pressure group/think tank, and then entered “paid politics” as a back bench MP. These young people are keen to clime the greasy pole of career success. The Miliband brothers are prime examples of this.
If as a nation and a people, we want to improve the standard of politics and government we have to raise the standard of the personality involved.
One of the great old men of British politics Anthony Wedgewood-Benn famously said: “it is about politics, not personalities…” Well, Anthony, you are wrong. It is about both.
The trouble with this is that the solution to this problem is in itself unfair.
But then life is unfair.
One of the most obvious reasons for explaining the disenchantment is the expenses scandal. This is in large part due to the fact that the MP’s are “money motivated”. This does not mean that they are necessarily dishonest. It means that they are like the typical commission only salesmen. Interested in maximising their income. During the 1970’s in an attempt to placate public criticism, MP’s salary increases were scaled back and they were given the “nod and the wink” to make it up on their expenses.
The way to improve the standard of MPs is to pay their travelling expenses, provide their offices and staff funded directly by the taxpayer but not to pay them a salary.
This of course will mean that being an MP will generally be the preserve of the wealthy. Clearly it will be vital to make sure ensure that there can be no “conflicts of interest”. This can be done by insisting on full public disclosure of their business and financial interests.
This proposal will produce a huge amount of criticism. However, the Britain of today is very different to the Britain in the middle of the 19th century. There are now large numbers of people who, although not multimillionaires, are of sufficient means as to be able to undertake the duties of an MP receiving only their incurred travelling and other sundry expenses.
There are many organisations, such as Amnesty International, the Freedom Association and Greenpeace who would be prepared to sponsor an MP.
Now let us address the issue of electoral reform. This should be taken together with reform of the whole constitution. Please see the page on the British gazette website, entitled Constitutional Reform in the U.K.