29 January 2008

The Final Nail In British Democracy.

This week saw Labour finally renege completely on its promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons. I suppose it is...
hardly a surprise that Gordon Brown and Jack Straw (at the ministry of justice), who have always been staunch defenders of the present system, would think about making any other decision.

It was Tony Blair that kept this referendum on the agenda in the face of opposition from the vast majority of MPs who are safely installed in seats with impregnable majorities and who are effectively on a meal ticket for life (Old Labour stalwarts like Tony Benn, Ian McCartney, John Prescott and most Unions were the biggest culprits in defending this stitch up). It was never going to be easy to get change - it would require a steely determination from the top that has been sadly lacking.

This denial of a referendum on British democracy is far more significant than the denial of a referendum on European democracy that the press are currently shouting about (much to the indifference of the populace). The powers of the EU, for all the ranting of the press, are still fairly limited. The nation state is still king and probably always will be. If only the Sun, Mail, Telegraph, Express etc were bothered about restoring British democracy - sadly it is not in their interest for voters to have more power (the EU threatens their monopoly - think of the breaking up of the mobile phone and airline price fixing cartels, think of the break up of Murdoch's stranglehold on premier league football etc etc).

I have always been of the view, given the difficulty in getting turkeys to vote for Christmas, that any progress in this area should be embraced wholeheartedly by reformers - even change that makes little difference - like the Alternative Vote, should be accepted on the road to equal votes for all.

So how dysfunctional is the current situation?

Every year that goes by sees the frustration of the electorate grow. The urban poor in particular, the sort of people who would vote for a centre-left government, are deciding not to vote in ever greater numbers. This has been ignored by Labour for decades because losing these votes has not cost them any seats (urban seats still hold comfortable majorities for Labour). Labour has instead concentrated on winning over the middle class suburbs - fewer voters but under this system they are more important. So millions of urban voters are lost to Labour forever to gain these few thousand in the marginals.

This of course has a massive effect on Labour policy - which is why we always have right wing Labour governments who betray the left of the party, and betray the millions of urban poor that have no other party to turn to. In the long term this strategy will enable the Tories to get back into power once again on a very small minority of the vote - and when they do, as well as a return to Thatcherism's worst excesses, they have some very nasty tricks in store for our electoral system.

Expect wholesale boundary changes (so much for the constituency link that Tories crow about - wait and see what they do to it), the electoral commission will have its remit changed so the Tories can gerrymander the boundaries at will. Every trick in the book will be used to lessen the impact of the urban vote in favour of the suburbs and rural areas. The Tories will encourage the decline in turnout amongst the urban poor and shamelessly suggest that urban seats should have more people in them because they do not turnout to vote. This will disenfranchise millions. This is why the battle for the concept of 'one member one equal vote' will be as important in this century as the battle for 'one member one vote' was in the last. Until we win this battle and get a referendum on this, then we are heading for a situation where the complete disregard of majority opinion will continue to worsen with dangerous consequences. We only have to look to the US, which is further down the road than us in disenfranchising the urban poor, where public transport and universal health cover for example - desperately demanded by the majority are overridden by corporate interests.

Of course, restoring democracy to Britain will take more than changing the electoral system, but it would be a massive step forward. I would be confident that once PR is established and majority rule returned - local democracy and tax raising powers, transparent and properly controlled party funding and a truly free media would follow, all protected by a written constitution because the demands of the majority would have to now finally be met.


  1. Labour are currently in power with the smallest share of the popular vote ever so don't get it such a huff about the Conservative taking power with so few votes!

  2. I agree with many of your points (I always worry when that happens :-) ) but i don't know how you arrive at the conclusion that the EU is limited in power. It is effectively a two chamber legislative, with the upper chamber indirectly elected and the lower chamber effectively unaccountable to its electorate. It is bound by constitution and has a supreme court that overrules any of our own legislation or common law. We are now effectively a federal state.

    I keep telling you Neil, we need a strong right party (UKIP/BNP) to get us out of this!

    I agree on your other points. Our electorate has become indifferent and the system needs reform.

  3. Snafu: I agree, Labour do not deserve absolute power with just 35% of the vote (21% of electors), no party does! How low should this vote be allowed to go? 30%? 25%? George Galloway was elected with just 8% support in his constituency. Isn't it time 35% of votes meant 35% of seats? Is that so unreasonable?

    What scares me about the next unrepresentative government being Tory, is that they have openly stated that they are going to make the system even more unfair.

  4. R&W, Most EU decisions have to be made with unilateral agreement of the heads of state of each country (Council Of Ministers). Most of the areas ceded to qualified majority voting (QMV) are areas where power has already been lost by nation states anyway and by pooling power to the EU this actually increases nation state's overall sovereignty. For example - competition policy, environmental policy, interpol - where corporations and criminals have not respected national borders for a long time.

    We are not part of the Euro, but how much real freedom do we have to set interest rates when they are dictated by the vagaries of the international exchange markets, Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB)? Inside the ECB we would have more of a say.

  5. R&W, also forgot to mention - most of the anti-democratic structure of the EU is as a result of the petty squabbles between nation states. The EU parliament certainly needs more say over policy - the only thing blocking that is the stubbornness of the commission (appointed by the heads of state) and council of ministers - the heads of state of each country, that keep the power close to them rather than the elected body.

  6. Referendum on EU = agreed.

    The parties pander far too much to voters in marginal seats = agreed.

    People in 'safe' seats are disenfranchised = agreed

    The Tories are going to gerrymander = not agreed! You can't slag somebody off pre-emptively (maybe they'll do it, maybe they won't, I see no evidence that they did it 1979 - 97, for example). It is also true that Labour have gerrymandered quite ruthlessly over the years and that in terms of total votes cast divided by number of MPs obtained, they are miles ahead of the Tories.

  7. Mark: Tories 2005 manifesto talked of changing boundary commission remit and increasing size of urban boundaries. Influential Tories - Peter Oborne at the Spectator and Conservative Home have since then shamelessly proposed disenfranchising those who do not vote, by increasing size of Labour urban seats. This is real Tory policy not pre-emptive guesswork which is why I am so worried. The current Labour bias is a natural dysfunction of FPTP, not something that has been deliberately rigged by Labour. Which of course doesn't excuse it, but at least Labour is not trying to make things worse than they already are. Glad you agree on the other stuff.

  8. Correction - it is partly a funtion of FPTP, and partly ruthless gerrymandering, for example disproportionate number of MPs from Scotland and Wales.

  9. Neil,
    Point taken about the EU system. However things seem to be evolving quickly. I was taught a few years ago that the lower chamber had little power but in just a few years they have gained the ability to veto and scrutinise. Wikipedia states that QM voting system is still used for most Council of Ministers' decisions which strikes me as dilution of democracy for us.

    I still feel the EU is less democratic and an expensive burden. Norway are doing fine and there is no reason why we can't have a far looser alliance and still promote democracy while protecting our own interests and not selling out our currency, legislation, fishing waters and identity by becoming a federal state.

    Even if you disagree, don't you think we should at least be asked first?

  10. Mark: Scotland and Wales have ALWAYS had a disproportionate number of MPs. Scotland has recently had its number of MPs reduced from 71 to 59 to bring it more into line with England now it has a parliament with some domestic powers. Anyway even at its height this made no more than a dozen MPs difference for Labour, since Labour's majority since 1997 has varied between 179 and 68, it has made no difference. The reason smaller countries tend to be given disproportionate representation is to recognise that the bigger country i.e. England will always dominate decisions because it has 85% of MPs in the UK. Now that Scotland has its own parliament with limited powers over domestic areas this is less of a concern.

  11. R&W, I would welcome a referendum on the EU. I agree that people need to hear both sides of the argument. The EU does have problems of accountability - but Westminster is probably even worse in this regard. According to the latest ICM Poll, the majority still favour membership despite the daily hostility to the EU from our US/Australian owned Tory press (Mail, Telegraph, Sun, Times, Standard, most local press).

    The current treaty on offer gives more power to the EU parliament and introduces QMV in more areas of environmental, foreign and aid policy. Now we have 27 member states, the nation state's power has been strenghened and without QMV, decision making would be virtually impossible. Personally I think the EU has been fantastic for us. I am a federalist and think we should join the Euro as soon as possible.