Guest post by David Lammy MP
At Prime Minister’s Questions last week, David Cameron said: “Let me be clear about what we think of electoral reform: we want to keep the existing system.” Plus ca change. At a time when the evidence of people’s discontent with the way we do politics in Britain manifested itself last week in drastically low turnout at the European election (the lowest on record), allowing the racist BNP a publicly funded platform in Brussels to spread their politics of division and hatred, how can this be right?
The time for reform of our system – to bring about a new politics – is long overdue. Our electoral system must be allowed more effectively to express people’s dissatisfaction with the British political class, as well as to vote positively for the party that best communicates their vision for how the country should be governed.
Clearly, the expenses scandal has shown that the House of Commons itself desperately needs to change. Some important measures should need little convincing – like an independent body to scrutinise MPs’ behaviour and set their pay. Some necessary changes would be more radical – like recall elections for MPs who contravene standards of conduct (currently under discussion), and perhaps even Parliamentary debates triggered by public petition, especially those which harness online tools of organisation.
But perhaps the most crucial part of this is the way we elect our representatives. For a while now, I have argued that we must move to a system of open primary elections to select the candidates from each party. This would mean that tightly-knit cabals and party membership cards – now in the possession of just 1 in 88 of the British electorate (less than two percent), down from 1 in 11 in the 1950s – would no longer be the prerequisites of meaningful political participation.
It is also time to have a real debate about the future of the wider electoral system. The first-past-the-post system (FPTP) we currently have has contributed to the current crisis of confidence in politics.
FPTP means that parties scramble to appeal to a mythical ‘Middle England’ – a handful of voters in a handful of marginal constituencies. In many Labour heartlands, this has led to a profound sense of injustice, a sense that politics does not speak to or for ordinary people.
It is no coincidence that the BNP often describes itself as Old Labour – but their national socialism is soured by racial hatred and bitterness. This is fuelled by economic insecurity, and a ‘traditional’ sense of community and culture being lost amidst the swirling winds of globalisation and economic change. De-industrialisation and the rise of a service economy have led to the loss of traditional working class ways of life, affecting people’s own personal identity and their sense of belonging in a wider community. Cultural difference has become the prism through which sections of the white population experience disadvantage, with migrants becoming easy scapegoats – viewed as competition for housing and public services. These are grievances that the BNP has learned to exploit – and a drastically low voter turnout, during a crisis in our political system, has now allowed them a platform to do so.
The Alternative Vote (AV) system of voting – where people rank candidates in order of preference, rather than selecting only one – would allow people a choice closer to their own political opinions. It would mean that people would not have to cast negative votes for their ‘least worst option’, and instead vote positively for a candidate or party who reflects their views. In 2005 Labour won just over a third of the vote – but had 55% of the seats. Given that turnout was only 61%, this means only around one in five people voted for their government. This could happen for any party under the current system.
AV would mean greater legitimacy for MPs, who would be elected with over 50% of the vote – something only 34% of British MPs can currently claim. And – most importantly – AV preserves the vital link between an MP and their constituency. As the MP for the most diverse constituency in Europe, and one of the most deprived in Britain, I am well aware that people who come to see me in advice surgeries rely on me to understand, empathise with and live the local concerns of our community. It is essential that people in their own communities are able to hold their MPs directly to account.
At these times of crisis, it is worrying that Britain seems to rely upon its ancient belief in gradual evolution and “muddling through,” having no founding documents to refer back to. Yet the founding fathers United States realised over 200 years ago that creating the sound basis for a good society required the clarity of a formal constitution, setting out the fundamental rights that people can expect, as well as their corresponding responsibilities. The US constitution laid out the balance of power between Executive, Legislature and the people. But when I try to explain the House of Lords to friends from American or Europe, I struggle to make the same connection. Last July, the Government committed itself to bringing in an 80% or 100% elected House of Lords, which I supported – as did many from other parties. However expert, however good at scrutinising legislation some of the current Peers are, the unaccountability of the present system can no longer be justified. Reform cannot happen soon enough.
I recognise that breaking open politics in this way might, in the short-term, produce results which are at odds with the party-political advantage and traditional establishments of Labour and the Tories. We might see a group emerge to the left of Labour, and a stronger Green voice. It might create a pro-EU party on the Right, exposing the Tories’ own deep divisions. It might mean that the Liberal Democrats would make gains, as we so often hear – but it might also mean that they are held to account where their record deserves to be questioned, as we saw in the local elections last week. But as Ben Brandzel, founder of the student arm of the MoveOn campaign in the States said to me recently: “We don’t just want more Democrats: we want better, more progressive Democrats”. An ambitious progressive movement must think like this: where other progressive parties achieve substantial votes alongside Labour, we must be confident enough to share ideas and represent those ideas through our MPs.
This transition is vital to progressive politics. Creating a progressive consensus, as advocates of electoral reform used to argue, can no longer be enough: the time has come for a more ambitious progressive movement, which emotionally understands, and directly addresses, the grievances of the people who feel abandoned by a political class they see as out-of-touch, and who are driven into the arms of extremists and fringe parties. These changes would represent an historic shift in our politics, and will require the widest possible debate to achieve consensus. But it has never been more pressing than to make these arguments. Electoral reform and a written constitution would strengthen our democracy and our politics, give Government greater legitimacy, give Parliament wider representation, and begin the long overdue process of increase public engagement and enthusiasm for politics.
David Lammy is Minister of State for Higher Education