A People’s Charter for Fair Voting

 

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Fair Voting

Changes in the way we vote operate on a geological scale in this country. The ‘40 shilling   franchise’, that gave the vote to all men in England and Wales who were property freeholders valued at or above 40 shillings, was introduced under Henry VI in 1430 and was not overturned until the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832, a wait of 402 years!

185 years’ later, on 30th October, 2017, there was a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on the merits of Proportional Representation. It was inspired by a public petition of one hundred thousand electronic signatures via email. Petitions to the King in England were introduced under the reign of Edward I around 1275, another ancient method. Yet, they were not commonly used by the general public on any large scale until the Chartists’ pursuit of the People’s Charter. After Peterloo, which will commemorate its 200th anniversary on 16th August, 2019, the Chartists attempted to gain universal suffrage with the 6 demands of the People’s Charter and brought forward several petitions to the House of Commons. These included millions of signatures, written on vast sheaves of paper and carried to the House of Commons by armies of volunteers that stretched several miles along the route to Parliament. These marches were major events in themselves, bringing out tens or hundreds of thousands of working people, waved on by large street crowds, still disenfranchised by the 1832 Act that gave the vote only to around 5% of the population (adding the capitalist class to the landowners). Each petition resulted in a debate in Parliament but, each was summarily dismissed by a ruling elite that would not relinquish power to those that they considered beneath them. The last Chartist Petition under their ‘leader’, Feargus O’Connor, was in 1848 and the cry for universal suffrage was defeated with no further extension to the vote until 1867.

Move forward 150 years and the result of the latest petition will, in the short term, be no change and no parliamentary debate on the floor of the House of Commons but the arguments for PR that were heard in Westminster Hall clearly outflanked those (mainly C/conservative) opponents.

It was not just the voting system but it is clear that democracy itself was being debated just as it was 200 years ago when Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was speaking to a crowd of one hundred thousand in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The resultant charge of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that murdered around twenty and injured hundreds was named ‘Peterloo’ to resonate with the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

It is now ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system that is on trial. FPTP has been our system for election to the Commons from at least 1430 but where, as the six demands of the People’s Charter of 1837 showed, democracy was only available to a few. In the 180 years after the People’s Charter was written, gradual changes have been made so that, once registered, every citizen of eighteen years and over has the right to vote in a local constituency, of which there are 650. The candidate with the most votes wins a constituency – a situation that remains the same as in 1832 (or even 1430) except that the votes are now by secret ballot. The winner of most ‘seats’ has a majority in the House of Commons. What could be wrong with that?

What is wrong is that ‘Winner-takes-all’, constituency-by-constituency, disenfranchises the vast majority of voters. The Electoral Reform Society calculated in 2015 that 74% of votes cast in the General Election were completely wasted as they are either votes for the losing party or votes for the winning party that exceeds the amount needed to win. Since I was first able to vote (at the 1974 General Election, when living in Manchester, when the Party I supported, the Liberals, gained 19.3% of the votes and only 13 seats!), I have not, at any General Election since, believed that my vote counted for anything – my preferred candidate has always lost! This is a form of disenfranchisement that results in reduced voter turnout, tactical voting that requires voters to vote for a second party to unseat their least favoured, protest voting in bye-elections and referendums (the Brexit vote has been viewed as, at least in part, such a protest) and a sense of voter irrelevance. So, despite having the ability to place a cross against a political party, the feeling is that the action is useless. At a time when the traditional two-party system is under siege, this results in the largest two parties obtaining government with lower votes than ever. It is a reason that Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) are more popular than before because people believe that the political party system is not one where their vote counts and that pressure points have to be obtained through other means.

Of course, it is even worse than this because many of the individual constituencies are in areas where particular parties have had complete control for many years: Labour in inner-city heartlands, Tories in rural areas. Voting in these areas is akin to the rotten boroughs of the 1820’s so that anointed individuals take up their seats without the need to strive for election.

This leads to parties putting their efforts primarily in those constituencies that are properly contestable, where the luck of location means that more than one party has a chance of success. In these seats, just a change of a few percentage points can mean success. It can be easily argued that just a few thousand people in the whole country decide general elections. The fight for votes in the UK comes down to far less than 5% of the population, the situation that existed prior to 1832.

Of course, no system is perfect. The UK needs a system where every vote can count but there is a desire in this country to hang onto constituency representatives that work for that constituency. That entails a well-thought out plan for a form of proportional representation. The Jenkins Commission in 1997 produced a system that attempted to combine the benefits of constituency and proportionality but, after support from the Labour opposition, came to nothing when Labour gained power.

Will the UK ever achieve an improved form of democracy when those in power get there through FPTP? Is there enough pressure from the public that will drive politicians to proportional representation and change the system that has endured since 1430? Perhaps we need a charter for democracy in 2017. The People’s Charter of 1837 did not bring the Chartists universal suffrage but all except one of its demands (annual elections) have been met. What the People’s Charter did not envisage was that better forms of communication (even O’Connor’s Northern Star newspaper was no match for today’s online communication revolution) would engender the ability of so many viewpoints to be held and argued over that leads to the increased number of political parties. We now need a voting system that re-enfranchises all the people and also motivates people to become active participants in the election process.

 

We need a People’s Charter for Fair Voting.

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Scotland and the UK’s Democratic Deficit

It was Bogdanov who coined the phrase “the Dictatorship of Democracy” to describe one of the options for a post-Imperialist Russia. It was Mao Zedong who used the term “Democratic Dictatorship” to Orwellianise the role of the Chinese people to attack the Imperialist spirit of Chiang Kai-Shek.

It may be harsh to turn this phrase on to the UK, but the current referendum in Scotland is showing that there is certainly a Democratic Deficit that being used to characterize why Scotland is turning towards independence (or at the least more devolution) and why English regions and Wales are now excited by the prospect of real, permanent and growing change.

The UK has always had a centralized system of government. Based on English and Scottish monarchic government, the gradual transfer of power to a London-based Parliament composed of the Commons and the Lords testifies to the history of nations that willed government to the centre.

Regional challenges have, over the years, been destroyed – at least until recently. Nothing signified this more than Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the Greater London Council in 1986 after Labour had won the elections and the Conservative Government could no longer stand its independence. The reinvigoration of London in its new formation – under both Labour and Conservative Mayors – served to provide a key opportunity to test whether the political centre could resist.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales (and the cross-party and cross-religion agreements in Northern Ireland) has been seen as the centre’s evolutionary resistance to change. It was not until the Scotland Act 1998 (just 16 years ago) that devolution was allowed there – having failed in the 1970’s because those in favour of devolution counted to less than 40% of those eligible to vote.

Partly because of the system of elections in the UK (which are first-past-the-post), Governments in the UK have tended to be elected with small percentages of the national vote (around 40%). As a result, the largest minorities gain the majority of the seats (except on rare occasions such as in 2010) and form the Government. This means that regions and nations such as Scotland and Wales may be governed by parties and ideals completely at odds with their own leanings.

For Scotland and Wales, this has been especially galling as they are both, in recent years, anti-Conservative. Whatever they stand for, the Conservatives are not seen in either country as their own. In England, the same can be said for many areas – the South-West (Liberal-leaning), Midlands and North (Labour). It is the south of England (centred around the highly prosperous heartland of London) that dominates national thought and population. Interestingly, London itself is not a Conservative heartland with a tendency towards social democratic ideals, but the outer London Boroughs and the rest of the South-East are dominated by Tory blue.

Democractic Deficit

Centralisation of power is the norm in the UK. The Centre makes all the decisions and regions (outside of Scotland) have modest powers. Most local authorities have decision-making authority over budgets for street lighting, refuse collection, local social care, local policing and similar but the assault on education and on local authority funding from the centre has been fierce in recent years and strengthened the stranglehold of Central Government. Education is a good example. The vast majority of state secondary schools are now Academies – outside of local control and reporting directly to the Secretary of State for Education. There is argument on both sides, but the centering of power into the Department for Education shows itself as part of a default mechanism in England. In Scotland and Wales, this has not occurred.

For Scots, the desire for change has been in evidence since the failed referendum in 1979. The recent debates on Independence focus on the “Yes” position as positive and the “No” position as negative (even if it is named “Better Together” the argument of this position has been entirely negative). David Cameron may have punctured the UK by allowing the referendum to be characterised in this way and none of the UK parties have been able to capture the essence of what positively makes the UK worth having apart from a nod to tradition and the past.

The reality, though, is not much different. Scots do not see the Conservative Party as relevant to them and while devolution has provided much decision-making power, the voice of the UK, spoken through Cameron and his ministers, is a daily reminder of the downside of Unionism. That voice speaks from elsewhere.

Before Cameron was Brown and Blair. Blair was characterized by centrist governance, dogma and, although leading Labour, was still seen to represent a distant (by miles and ideas) government. Brown was so dogged by problems (international finance and personal) that despite being Scottish, he fared no better. He was also a “died in the wool” centrist.

This has meant that the desire for self-government is also a desire for real “voice” – one that inspires people. Most Scots are no longer inspired by politicians that they see as remote in terms of distance and in terms of policies. Around half the Scots may well vote that way on 18th September.

Democratising the “Democratic Deficit”

The dictatorship of democracy (that leads to the democratic deficit) by the largest minority is central to UK politics and has been throughout its history in a country that has a relatively benign and social population. Of course, this is not the case in Ireland – a special case. In the rest of the UK (Great Britain), the democratic deficit has not caused national strife since the Civil War in the 17th Century – where there was no democratic ideal even with Cromwell. Apart from skirmishes (such as over the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher), British people have been notably sanguine. There was no Freedom of Information until Tony Blair (and there are many exceptions to this) and ministerial privilege can overturn national accountability such as in the alleged corruption at BAe Systems in Saudi Arabia.

However, the Scots have slightly opened Pandora’s box. Out of this referendum may well come the opportunity to reduce the deficit at least. This has long been a Liberal tradition – blind-sided by the link with Social Democrats in the 1970’s – before the Liberal Democrats came into being. Liberalism was meant to enshrine the spirit of “localism” – against the centrist doctrines of Conservatives and Labour. This localism would have prized a federal Europe (EU) and been at the forefront of devolution for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England.

Devolving as much power as possible to the most local area possible reduces the Democratic Deficit. This is hated by traditional politicians because it loosens power. In a world where national politics is such a profession, it becomes harder to achieve. It is argued that local power begets local corruption – the type of prolonged power that means the same party stays in power for too long and becomes corrupted.

This means that the second pillar of Liberalism, voting by proportional representation, is needed to offset the potential for local dictatorships.

The people of the UK are not naturally inclined to shake up the centre and their desire to maintain first-past-the-post elections shows a desire for little change. It may be that the Scots show the way to change and a reduction in the Democratic Deficit whether they vote “Yes” or “No” on 18th September. It may be a big decision for the Scots – it it already a potential game changer for democracy in the whole of the potentially dis-United Kingdom.