democracy

After 12 years in office, a senior Labour figure notices that the electoral system doesn’t really work…

Johnson urging electoral reform – BBC, Alan Johnson seizes initiative over Labour leadership – The Times.
Here’s an old joke (stop me if you’ve heard it). How many Liberal Democrats does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change it, and nine to complain about the unfairness of the electrical system.

Lib-Dems have been complaining about the electoral system ever since they were the Lib-Dems. In fact, the Social Democrats — one of the predecessor parties, for those with short memories — really had it as their top policy. If you want to get really bored in a pub, identify a Lib-Dem (this time of year, easy to spot because they will be carrying lots of leaflets or a badge) and ask them to explain the difference between STV, AV, AV plus and the D’Hondt system. You can silently slip away if there are other Lib-Dems in the pub, because they will discuss it together for hours.

If you’ve heard less from us on the subject recently, it’s not that we don’t care about it any more, it’s that, with Gordon Brown in Downing Street, any prospect of electoral reform seemed further than ever. Back in the day, Tony Blair (you remember him, right?) commissioned Roy Jenkins, one of the founders of the Social Democrats (this is getting like Rock Family Trees, but without the loud music) to review the electoral system and come up with a recommendation for a truly fair, truly democratic system which could work in Britain. Jenkins took his road show round the country (I remember giving evidence at it), and duly made a recommendation which was a mixture of pragmatism and true reform. Word on the street, however (that’s Downing Street, not Ramsay Street), was that Gordon Brown bitterly opposed it, and Blair had to back down. Poor Blair, between Bush and Brown he really didn’t have much to call his own. So everything was shelved, and we went on with the same grossly unfair system which means that your vote only really counts if you live in a small number of swing seats, and are a floating voter. If you always vote for one party, or if you live in a ‘safe’ seat, then your vote doesn’t really do much.

The problem with electoral reform, of course, is that the people who have to vote it in — MPs — are the ones who got in under the present system, and have the most to lose if it changes. A bit like allowing MPs to vote on their own expenses, now I come to think about it.

So, with parliament in disarray, and the public out for blood, Alan Johnson, already tipped as a leadership contender, steps up and says we ought to change the whole system.

He’s right, of course, but his timing is absolutely rubbish! After twelve years of doing nothing, and just a year out from the last possible date for a General Election, how does he intend to get the system changed in time for anything other than electoral chaos next year? If he actually has a plan, let’s hear it. In principle, of course, with up to 350 MPs set to lose their seats as a result of the growing unpopularity not only of the government, but of the entire political class, this is a golden opportunity to change things. If we have an election on the old system, the 350 or so new MPs will suddenly have a vested interest in keeping the system going that elected them. And, of course, unless something very, very funny happens, Alan Johnson will not be running the show in 12 months and 2 weeks time.

So, what’s he about? One thing, perhaps two. Certainly, this is a gauntlet in the face to Gordon Brown, who, as yet, doesn’t quite seem to have woken up to the chaos around him. Johnson might as well have announced his intention to challenge Brown for the leadership. The second? Could Johnson be proffering an olive branch to the Lib-Dems? Could he be trying now to stitch up a coalition which will keep the Tories out? If so, he needs to make better guarantees than the ones that Tony Blair used to try to gain Paddy Ashdown’s support in the event of a hung parliament. Blair made (it appears in private) all kinds of promises to Ashdown. But, when he romped home to victory, these were watered down to a Jenkins commission which was moth-balled the moment it was finished.

(New) Labour may not learn, but Liberal Democrats have. We won’t be so trusting this time around… to paraphrase a higher authority, let Johnson first produce fruits in keeping with a commitment to fair democracy.

Are single issue parties the answer? Not exactly…

Next month’s European elections could see voters turning to small parties in record numbers, says the BBC

It’s time for the Euro elections, and England (particularly — other parts of the Union are better at this) has never quite made up its mind as to whether the Euro elections are to be taken more or less seriously than Eurovision. Single issue parties come and go. Remember the Referendum Party? The Common Good? Respect? (Whatever happened to them?) Perennial favourites are back, of course: UKIP and the Greens accounting for right-wing and left-wing, under the guise of being about something important. But our most popular single issue party, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, seems to give Europe a miss. Maybe they don’t take Europe as seriously as the others do. This time we have some new ones — English Democrats, the Jury Team, No2EU, Fair Play Fair Trade Party, Libertas, Mebyon Kernow, Animals Count, the Alliance Party, the Pensioners party, the Roman Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party, The Peace Party, Wai D, Yes 2 Europe, and the Christian Peoples Alliance.

That’s an awful lot of parties.

For a few years, we took a stand at the Greenbelt Festival with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Generally speaking, we were there in a tent with about 100-200 organisations represented, all trying to have some impact through politics. They ranged from major charities through to one man bands. A few of them eyed us with suspicion, while others told us how hard it was to get the major parties to take them seriously. In some cases, they both eyed us with suspicion and told us the major parties wouldn’t take them seriously.

There are basically three kinds of single issue politics. One is temporary but important. One is well-meaning but fairly useless. One is dangerous and dishonest.

Joanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas is the most recent in a long line of highly focused campaigns on a single issue which attract cross-party support, achieve their goal, and then disappear. Lumley is not looking to form a Gurkha’s party, or to propel herself into parliament by this means. She identified an injustice which meant a lot to her (her father had fought alongside the Gurkhas), and invested her profile and talents working with the legitimate owners of the issue — the Gurkhas themselves. This is the first kind of single issue politics, and it plays an important role in British society. But, very, very rarely does such a cause form a party and stand at elections. Its strength is that it can work with the existing politicians for something which is evidently right.

Fair Play Fair Trade, Animals Count and the Peace Party are examples of the second kind. They raise a legitimate social issue. But, in fact, their involvement in the election does nothing to take their agenda forward. At best, they achieve nothing. At worst, they switch off the people who actually do get elected from doing anything about it. At the 2001 General Election, for example, I, as a very green first-time candidate, attended a meeting about asylum seeker rights — something about which I care passionately, though it’s not a popular issue with most people. It didn’t take long to realise that everyone else present was from one of the extremist parties, and the meeting had been organised to demonstrate that only they cared about asylum seekers. They did their best to make me welcome, but they didn’t conceal very successfully that the only reason they had invited me (and others, who did not attend) was in order to be able to say ‘we invited the main parties, but they weren’t interested’.

Then there are the parties that put forward a single issue, but are actually about something entirely different. I grew up believing that the Green party was a party of environmentalists. It was only when I started meeting them that I discovered they (at least in Britain) are actually an extreme socialist party that attracts attention and votes by flying the Green flag, but are closed to any form of environmentalism which does not tally with their underlying philosophy. If you want to save the planet, join Friends of the Earth instead. A number of the ‘save the NHS’ parties are run by people who had no previous contact with the NHS, except as patients, until they decided that the closure of a local hospital was an ideal issue on which to sell their party. Some of these are more honest than others. I believe that the Greens do care about the environment. On the other hand, every piece of literature I’ve ever seen from the BNP attempts to present a single issue, such as law and order, as their real concern. You have to read a long way down many of their pieces before you discover what they are really about.

Single issue campaigns are part of the warp and woof of British democracy. Single issue parties are the electoral equivalent of dithering: when it’s too hard to choose, perhaps because of a crisis of the kind we have seen over MP expenses, many people opt for them because they feel they have a duty to vote, and want to vote for something else, anything else.

But when these single issue parties have been elected, as with UKIP and the Greens at the last Euro elections, and as with the BNP and Respect on some councils, and, for George Galloway, in parliament, their record is depressing. Aside from going on Big Brother, it’s very hard to spot anything that Galloway has actually done since being elected as a Respect MP. UKIP lost their party leader swiftly, and lost another MEP to a benefits-fraud conviction, and have probably the worst voting record of any party in any European country. The Greens have not engaged in any positive dialogue which has generated any change that would not have happened if they had not been there. Although the BNP have failed to secure seats in any of our parliaments, their European cousins, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and LPF in the Netherlands, actually gained enough seats to form governments. But their governments quickly collapsed, because they lacked the consensus to put into practice their underlying racist policies, and they had no other policies on which to base an administration.

Hand wringing is all very well. No one can deny that many of our mainstream politicians have let us down badly, not just over the last couple of weeks, but over the five, ten or twenty years since they were first elected. But, like it or not, real politicians in real parties are in it for the long haul, and when all the bluster of scandal and election are over, they sit down together and work out — often across party boundaries — how to get the best deal for the public who elected them. They certainly don’t always get it right. But their record is infinitely better than the hand wringing or single-cynicism parties that surface especially at Euro elections.

Michael Martin shows remarkable honour

One day after MPs called for him to go, Michael Martin made history by announcing his resignation. In doing so, he has surprised many people, including myself, and he has shown a remarkable level of honour and perception.

Michael Martin could easily have clung on. By common agreement, the major parties never put up candidates to contest the Speaker’s seat, so he could have carried on drawing his MP’s salary and expenses long after the last of his critics had fallen by the way side. Instead, he has chosen to begin to turn the tide of public trust. Martin is not Poseidon, and does not rule the waves. But neither is he Canute. His example will put pressure on other MPs to face reality and either announce that they are standing down at the election — as Douglas Hogg has done — or stand down right away, as some surely should do.

As I said right at the beginning of this crisis, as long as MPs pretend that all are equally guilty, the question of trust cannot be resolved. Some MPs have done nothing wrong. Even if they claimed for expenses that the public might not like, they did so entirely within the rules and without any profit to themselves. Some of them have been ridiculed or lambasted in the press. This is simply unfair and wrong. Instead of calling ‘shame on you’, we, the public, should perhaps be saying ‘shame on us’. But other MPs have clearly played the system to leave them with money in their pockets at the end of the day. Even if this was within the rules, it is clearly wrong. The point of expenses is that they reimburse, not that they enrich. Some MPs who will coincidentally become richer as a result of the way property prices have changed have announced that they will return any profits to the taxpayer. This is honourable. But those who ‘flipped’ their second homes, or bought dilapidated properties, did them up at the taxpayer’s expense, and then sold them on at a profit, must not be allowed to get away with simply paying the money back. Even if it was within the letter of the rules, they knew that what they were doing was far, far removed from anything that could be justified to the electorate. They should never have been able to justify it to their own consciences. And there have been MPs who have engaged in behaviour which bears all the hallmarks of fraud against the taxpayer.

Just as Michael Martin has taken the honourable route and left, MPs who have played the system, or who have claimed dishonestly, should resign their seats now. Just as MPs seemed unanimous in calling for the Speaker to go, they should now — if they have done such things — be willing to go themselves.

MPs who have claimed extravagantly — for swimming pools, tennis courts, moats, and so-on, need to examine themselves. Douglas Hogg is at one end of the scale — whether or not his claim was within the rules, the ownership of a moat is an extravagance that the public should never have been required to fund. At the other extreme are MPs who have simply bought needed items at a higher price than most of us would be willing to pay. Who should decide their fate? The answer, of course, is the electorate. Those who recognise that they really cannot justify their actions can take Hogg’s route. Those who believe that they can will have the opportunity to do so at the General Election.

But before we have a General Election, I believe firmly that we should have a Special Election — a single day on which all of the by-elections triggered by MPs taking the honourable route — the Michael Martin route — and resigning their seats are fought. Contesting all of these on one day would be cathartic for Britain. In my view, it is a necessary and essential step in the process of restoring the public trust without which there is simply no democracy, only a kleptocracy — government by thieves.

Poor Gordon’s perfect storm — and heeding the lesson of history

Poor Gordon Brown. The truth about him is that he is personally a very upright individual. In a time when the honesty of almost every politician is being questioned, no mud has stuck to Gordon, nor is any likely to.

But — once the now almost inevitable leadership challenge has prematurely ended his premiership — his legacy will have been the perfect storm of crisis in Westminster, economic meltdown, and environmental collapse.

Brown waited ten years for the best job in politics, and within two years almost every shred of authority has fallen from him.

We are, of course, nowhere near the position of Germany in the 1930s. Confidence in our democracy has not collapsed to that extent, and our economy — though in poor shape — is not remotely like that of the Weimar republic.

Nonetheless — even accepting that our position, though appalling, is not desperate as theirs was — we must learn something. The extremist parties are already rushing to cash in on the combination of economics and crisis of trust. UKIP have lost an MEP to the criminal justice system as a result of benefit fraud, and yet they are attempting to make capital out of the ‘dishonesty’ of the MPs of the mainstream parties. Other groups, more extreme, widely exposed in the media for what they really are, are flooding the streets of susceptible areas with their promises to clean up politics.

Politics must be cleaned up, but the extremist parties are not the ones to do it. Great Britain must hold its nerve through this crisis. Electing someone just because they are ‘different’ is no sound basis for the future.

Gordon Brown’s tragedy is a personal one. He longed to serve his country, but the times were not right. We must not allow his to become our national tragedy. We are in danger of electing the most right wing set of MEPs in our European history, and in danger of doing the same thing at Westminster when the General Election comes.

Reactionary, right wing politics is no more likely to lead to upright, honest politicians than any other random stab in the dark. It is terribly hard, but Britain must rally round the core of centre politicians who have not been tarnished (except by rhetoric) in this scandal.

We owe it to ourselves.

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