Category Archives: Democracy undermined
A reader sent the link to this consideration of e-petition 168657 relating to proportional representation
30 October 2017
Edited extracts, emphasis added
A constituent of mine has conveyed to me the fact that she feels passionately that unless some kind of system is devised that truly represents voters’ opinions, our democracy will be even more broken that it is at the moment—she cited the example of the United States. We must ensure that people feel that their voices are heard here in Parliament.
It seems a very odd and conflicted scenario that those who say that they seek a so-called fairer voting system are unable to accept the result of the last referendum on this very issue. “Ah,” some people will cry, “that was about the alternative vote, AV. This is about proportional representation—a very different thing altogether.” The fact remains, however, that the referendum result was not only a rejection of AV, but a massive endorsement of our current voting system.
I support proportional representation but voted against AV, because I thought that single transferable vote was a better system.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that first past the post is inherently an electoral system for a two-party political system? In England, there are at least five competitive parties, and in Wales and Scotland, which have national parties, there are six.
How can first past the post possibly reflect that diversity of political parties?
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Does he not have any concerns about safe seats and the sense of a local monopoly if there is no competition for power? His party surely understands the concept that if one party has complete control in an area, we get bad government.
I have always been a supporter of electoral reform. It has always seemed to me that the obvious starting point for any electoral system is that the number of votes that people cast for parties should be reflected in the composition of Parliament or whatever body is being elected.
Frankly, I find it absurd that on several occasions in British history we have had elections where a party with fewer votes than another has won the election and formed the Government. That happened as recently as 1974, and before that in 1951 and on several other occasions. The number of votes cast should be reflected in the composition of Parliament. That is the start and end of the debate for me,
We have this argument about strong and weak government, but strong government to me means good government. It does not mean a Government with an artificial majority propelled into that majority by the system when the people have not voted for that majority. Whatever we think of things such as the Iraq war or the poll tax, they are examples of strong government, but I argue strongly that they are not examples of good government.
The devolved nations have led the way on a whole range of policy issues, simply because they have a more representative political culture. Many know full well that first past the post is open to manipulation. It has always been the case in every party represented here that favoured sons and daughters have been parachuted into constituencies or selection processes have been manipulated. It is simply not true that that can be transferred to any system that has a list involved.
If democracy is about fairly representing the views of the people, we are failing with first past the post. As a country, we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy, yet the vast majority of votes stack up and simply do not make an impact on the overall result. No fewer than 68% of votes cast in June’s general election were, in effect, wasted—they made no difference at all to the outcome.
Yes, I have a vested interest.
Some 1 million people voted Green in 2015. Under a proportional system, those votes would have given us more than 20 MPs.
However, I am also deeply worried about what our outdated, dysfunctional electoral system is doing to the legitimacy of our governance system—a system that not only fails the political parties and fails to deliver effective government, but fails the citizens of this country.
The Electoral Reform Society described the 2015 general election, in which a Government were elected on just 24% of the eligible vote, as “the most disproportionate” in electoral history. It further reported that in the election just gone more than 22 million votes —68%—were essentially wasted because first past the post takes no account of votes for the winning candidate over and above what they needed to win, or indeed of votes for losing candidates.
In five constituencies 90% of votes made no difference to the outcome because they were cast for candidates who did not win, or cast for the winning candidate over and above what they needed to win. More than 90% of votes—a huge number.
On the point about devolution, we have proportional representation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in London. It works very well. People understand it, and it delivers good government in all those regions.
One disadvantage of our current system is that it has so many things that are negative and skew it.
As was mentioned, marginal seats are targeted, with parties throwing all kinds of money at them to try to win them back, whereas voters who do not live in a marginal seat are lucky to get a couple of leaflets through the door. That is not a good and representative system, and we need to think a bit better about how we get around and change those things. PR, under which all votes count a good deal more, would certainly be one way to change that, particularly when asking for second or third preferences from constituents, as happens in Ireland, which has a far more competitive system where people fight for those votes.
I also thank my constituents who have written to me on this very important subject.
First past the post neither reflects voters’ wishes nor is any more likely to provide strong government than proportional representation. I will also quote the late Robin Cook, who said in 2005: “Democracy is not just a means to an end. Democracy is a value in itself. And if we treasure that value, we need to provide a more democratic system for the centrepiece of our own political structure.”
I agree with the Electoral Reform Society that, under first past the post, people feel more like observers than participants in the democratic process.
Since the last Labour Government created the London Assembly, I have been involved in campaigning for elections in which the geographical link is maintained, contrary to the points repeatedly made by Members here who oppose a change. Furthermore, the London Assembly reflects the voting intentions of Londoners, as do all the new elected legislative bodies created by the last Labour Government in the years after 1997.
The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) mentioned the recent New Zealand general election, of which I have personal experience. When I visited my son in New Zealand in September, I played a small part on election day. They have multi-Member PR there. Notwithstanding the unorthodox way in which the leader of New Zealand First announced his choice of partners in the Green and Labour parties, in order to form a Labour-led Government, there is no groundswell of opinion in New Zealand to move away from the multi-Member system. I spent the day reminding voters in a strongly Labour voting area in South Auckland to go out to vote. Because of the PR system, those people were more likely to come out to vote than they might have been under first past the post, which would have made it a safe seat.
In the UK, because of first past the post, many people in safe seats say on the doorstep, “What’s the point of voting?” In highly marginal seats such as my own—it was highly marginal until June 2017, but seems to be a safe seat for the time being—people often vote not for their first party of choice, but the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate they least want. One person in five votes tactically, according to the Electoral Reform Society. The lack of representation in Parliament of small parties is abysmal, but as the co-leader of the Green party, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), said, those parties often represent millions of votes.
Going into the election in June this year, I had a majority of 465 in my seat of Brentford and Isleworth. The Green party—some of its members are here today—withdrew its candidate because it felt that I was more likely to further its priorities in Parliament than my Conservative opponent. I met many people on the doorstep who normally vote Green and said they would vote for me, but would have liked an influence on getting a Green MP elected to Parliament. I met many Liberal Democrats who were voting for me, but would have preferred the chance to vote Lib Dem. That is not democracy—it is not good democracy.
In my view, PR is a way to have a more representative voice.
While no system is perfect, all systems have elements of complexity. All can bring instability, hung Parliaments and coalitions. PR brings proportionality, as people know that their vote will help towards the weighting of the party they want to see sitting in that legislature, and reflects the complex diversity of the UK now.
I rise to argue that the central purpose of the campaign for proportional representation must be to shine a light on the clear, strong and manifold causal links between the state of our broken politics and the state of our discredited voting system.
The simple fact is that the British people deserve an electoral system in which every vote counts.
Why do the vast majority of developed nations use proportional representation, while our electorate are forced to accept second best?
Decades of research from around the world shows that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war.
Polls consistently show that a majority of the public want PR. The latest poll shows that 67% want to make seats match votes, and those people are joined by a growing alliance of parties, MPs and public figures who want real democracy.
The transparency of a more coalition-based system whereby parties are able to self-identify clearly as parties in their own right is a far more healthy way of running a democracy.
The truth is that it is first past the post that increasingly leads to backstairs deals and pork barrel politics.
I prefer the open politics of transparent coalition building, in which parties are clear about the trade-offs that they would make in a coalition, and the public clearly do too. They like to see their politicians putting the national interest ahead of narrow party political gain, because they can see that our entire political culture, underpinned and compounded by our winner-takes-all electoral system, is not geared to building broad-based political support right across the country. No, it is geared to focus on approximately 100 constituencies —the so-called battleground seats.
I shall finish in that spirit by calling on political parties to commit to including two things in their manifestos: first, an undertaking in principle to replace first past the post with a more proportional system; and secondly, a commitment to organising a constitutional convention, shortly after the next general election, to identify the best possible proportional system that we can implement for our country. True radicalism is about going to the root cause of a problem, identifying the solution and building consensus for change, so let us for once be truly radical.
Let us accept that our politics is broken and that our utterly discredited first-past-the-post system is preventing us from building the new political culture that our country so urgently needs.
The full debate may be read here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-10-30/debates/9D7C1DE6-0EA9-45D2-AD7E-D0EEB3ECCB92/ProportionalRepresentation
In last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time there was a fiery intervention by MP Dennis Skinner who told Theresa May about research showing that the High Speed 2 rail line was going out of its way to stop disruption to “leafy suburbs of the south”:
“[In] the leafy suburbs of the south, the first 140 miles, 30% of it has been dedicated to tunnelling to avoid knocking houses down.
“Yet in the north we are now told that the percentage is only 2% for the whole of the north. “And why? Because HS2 says it’s too costly, knock the houses down.
“Will she arrange for a meeting with people from my area in order to avoid another 30 houses being knocked down in Newtown part of Bolsover.
“Isn’t it high time that this government stopped treating our people like second class citizens?”
Theresa May replied by extolling her government’s service to these second class citizens citing resounding names Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engines; the reality?
The north struggles to attract high-calibre teachers . . . Its secondary schools have, on average, funding of £1,300 less per pupil than those in London. In April this year the FT reported research findings that schools with the poorest children face much greater cuts per pupil than those with the most affluent children under the government’s proposed funding formula. (Brian Groom FT)
Knowsley and Liverpool are two of the most deprived areas of the country: council spend per head in these areas has been reduced by £400 and £390 respectively. In Wokingham and Elmbridge, two of the wealthiest parts of the country, the corresponding totals are £2.29 and £8.14.
A scheme to compensate councils for the council tax freeze, for example, is calculated on the value of properties in the area, meaning that the higher the value of local homes, the larger the relief package: Surrey gets a vastly bigger pay-off than Teesside. (Tom Crewe, LRB essay)
The local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation and more reliant on central government grants, were relatively worse off. Cuts to the poorest metropolitan districts averaged 28% compared with more affluent authorities (2010-2015). National reviews painted a stark picture of closures and restrictions to services. (Steve Schofield, Conservative austerity and the future of local government)
Time for change!
Below a suitably sinister picture of Jeremy Corbyn and a very thin text in the Times, John Carlin (right) refers to Corbyn’s refusal to accept an invitation to attend an official dinner with Israel’s prime minister this week.
The position taken by the Labour leader is honest and consistent. Years ago he was arrested for demonstrating against Israel’s support for apartheid in South Africa.
Below: The West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit, seen through a barbed wire fence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to approve some hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before slowing settlement construction, two of his aides said Friday, despite Washington’s public demand for a total settlement freeze.
“Since 1967 Israel has established over a hundred settlements in the West Bank. In addition, there are dozens more settlement outposts that are not officially recognized by the authorities. These settlements were established on vast tracts of land taken from the Palestinians, in breach of international humanitarian law. The very existence of the settlements violates Palestinian human rights, including the right to property, equality, a decent standard of living and freedom of movement”: B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Jeremy Corbyn has consistently called for an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people, supporting a two-state solution. Had he agreed to dine with a perpetrator, one can imagine the outcry and the charges brought against him.
B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories is one of many Israeli Palestinian organisations working for justice and peace.
Nelson Mandela, to whom Carlin (his biographer) is said to have paid an eloquent, affectionate tribute (here), was loyal to Palestinians and troubled by Israel’s support of the South African apartheid, which he worked to end.
On a 1999 trip to Israel Mandela said:
“Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank”.
(Read on here).
Broken Britain 9: ‘populism’ is really ‘anti-elitism’ – a backlash due to economic and political inequality
Stephen Latner, an FT reader, reminds columnist Philip Stephens – and a whole range of commentators – that it would be more accurate to describe “populism” as “anti-elitism” and acknowledge that the backlash is not down purely to economic factors but political as well . . .
Philip Stephens had explained that the explanation for a rising sense of grievance and a collapse of trust in the old political order is to be found in the answers to the opinion poll question asking people if they expect a better life for their children:
“Voters are now more likely to answer no than yes. The march to progress, they assume, has ended . . .The pain is made the more acute when a small minority can indeed pass on great power and wealth to their children . . .”
Latner adds that many voted for Brexit because of the perceived elitism of the EU (“an unelected, non-transparent, central bureaucracy”) and sees that new technology – ‘the digital age’ – is ensuring that elitism will come under fire and more centralisation of political power will be seen as elitist and unacceptable.
Stephens supplies the element missing from Latner’s analysis – the added burden of a political elite allied with the wealthiest corporates:
“At its simplest, establishing trust is about behaviour. Today’s elites should ask themselves just when it became acceptable:
- for politicians to walk straight from public office into the boardroom;
- for central bank chiefs to sell themselves to US investment banks
- and for business leaders to pay themselves whatever they pleased”.
The presenter of this BBC radio programme, Adrian Goldberg, grew up on the Druids Heath council estate in Birmingham, the home of the ‘municipalism’ pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain when he was Mayor of Birmingham – summarised by Walsall MP John McShane in the Commons in 1930:
“A young person today lives in a municipal house, and he washes himself … in municipal water. He rides on a municipal tram or omnibus, and I have no doubt that before long he will be riding in a municipal aeroplane. He walks on a municipal road; he is educated in a municipal school. He reads in a municipal library and he has his sport on a municipal recreation ground. When he is ill he is doctored and nursed in a municipal hospital and when he dies he is buried in a municipal cemetery.”
Adrian is described as being an ideal candidate to judge the changing nature of the local council, because when he and his family moved there the local authority:
- built properties and
- collected the rent.
- Adrian took a council-subsidised bus service to
- the secondary school run by his local education authority.
- On the way home he’d drop into his council-run library to pick up some books
- or take a swim in the council run pool.
He comments, “Today the situation is much more complex”
Adrian considered the effect of austerity on the role of councils today. Birmingham council has almost halved its staff since 2008, from around 24,000 to 12,500. Last year another £28m was cut from Birmingham’s adult care budget of £230m. 2017/18 – the seventh year of cuts – is predicted to be the toughest year yet with expected reductions of £113m to the council’s overall budget, on top of £650m already cut since 2010.
Local government grants and powers have been greatly reduced in several areas, including education and housing. Read more about the following cases here.
- The fate of the formerly successful council-run Baverstock Secondary School in Druids Heath
- The group of residents who set up the Friends of Walkers Heath Park in November 2011
- The volunteers who are helping to run the library
- Druids Heath’s handsome and historic Bells Farm community centre (below), with its food bank and other services, also kept going by local volunteers.
The link also leads to news of high-rise tower blocks in the area; dilapidation, damp and fire hazards go unremedied, the splendid concierge system was abandoned and full time neighbourhood office advice centres, closed in 2006, were replaced by a private call service which was expensive, often not answering, with staff unable to supply the information needed.
In Birmingham there was a move under John Clancy’s leadership to take back ‘in-house’ the services currently undertaken by profit-making private companies, deciding not to renew one Capita contract and considering the future of refuse collection in the city. This, because the ‘market place’ economy which has developed, privatising refuse collection, road maintenance and ‘back office’ functions in Birmingham, has proved to be more expensive and often less efficient. This hope is fading as Richard Hatcher reports on the new regime: Birmingham Council Children’s Services contracted out, Children’s Centres closed.
The health and safety of council tenants is evidently not a government priority
Inside Housing reports the housing minister’s description of sprinkler systems for high rise blocks as “additional rather than essential” and refusing a council’s request for funding promised after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Strangely, the conservative Prime Minister expresses admiration for Joseph Chamberlain
Mayor of Birmingham in 1873, city MP in 1876, Joseph Chamberlain directed the construction of good housing for the poorest, libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. Unlike Ms May and colleagues, he was not in favour of a market economy, arguing for tariffs on goods from countries outside the British Empire. He was also an ‘economic interventionist’ (see Lewis Goodall, Newsnight), described as a “gas and water socialist”. He took profit-making private enterprises into public hands, declaring that “profit was irrelevant”.
Ms May’s government continues to implement a series of cuts affecting the lives of the country’s poorest and most disabled with might and main.
Ironically the contemporary politician sharing Chamberlain’s principles is the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies she echoes but does not implement.
Twenty years ago, at the Mebyon Kernow National Conference on 4th October 1997, Dick Cole was elected the Leader of the Party for Cornwall. Two decades on, Cllr Cole continues to be a prominent public figure who is still at the helm of MK and serving his local parish of St Enoder on the unitary authority. First elected to Restormel Borough Council in 1999, he was re-elected in 2003 and 2007.
During this time, he balanced his civic duties with his work as an archaeologist (Cornwall County Council). When Cornwall Council was created in 2009, Dick stood down from his employment, so that he would be able to stand for the new authority. He was subsequently elected in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
In the most recent local election from earlier this year, he polled a vote share of 83%. His majority was the largest achieved by any candidate in Cornwall, and this was his fifth consecutive local election contest in which he polled over 75% of the vote.
Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall – is a modern and progressive left-of-centre political party, campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable world. It exists to fight for ALL the people of Cornwall, with a political programme that puts Cornwall first and offers an alternative to the London-centred parties.
Speaking on behalf of MK’s ruling National Executive, Deputy Leader Cllr Loveday Jenkin has paid tribute to Dick’s work as Party Leader. She said: “Dick’s long-standing commitment to Cornwall and its people is extraordinary. He has been at the heart of so many campaigns and it is truly remarkable that he has found so much energy to battle for Cornish communities over such a significant period of time.
“It is inspiring how hard he has worked as the leader of Mebyon Kernow and as a proactive local councillor. We are extremely proud of the work that he has done pushing for meaningful devolution to Cornwall, fair funding for Cornwall and its public services, as well as his interventions on a host of planning, housing and other matters. It is disappointing that so much of MK’s pro-Cornwall agenda has not found favour with the other political parties in Cornwall and Westminster, but we are determined to continue to campaign with Dick to secure a better deal for one and all in Cornwall.”
Earlier this year, Dick was listed as No. 3 on the “Cornish List” of the top 50 people who “lead the way in campaigning on Cornish issues” and “flying the black and white flag for Cornwall.”
The list was prepared by the Cornwall Live website, for the Cornish Guardian, Cornishman and West Briton newspapers. He has been at the forefront of numerous campaigns for a better deal for Cornwall, its communities, economy and environment. Read about six of his many achievements here.
Cole addressing MK conference
“Over the past few months, the UK Prime Minister made numerous assertions that there would be no snap General Election. She also repeatedly stated that the next General Election would take place in 2020, as specified by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. As a consequence, Mebyon Kernow has not been making preparations for parliamentary elections and, in 2017, we have focused our efforts on the elections to the unitary authority and town and parish councils across Cornwall. Our members consider that the Prime Minister and other Westminster politicians have shamefully misled voters on this matter and are extremely angry at the disrespectful way in which the General Election was announced during local elections. General Election campaigning undoubtedly over-shadowed and subverted the elections to Cornwall Council, where the focus was shifted away from important local issues and onto Westminster party politics, to the obvious benefit of the Conservative Party.”
Dick commented on Facebook that it had been hard to generate coverage in the mainstream media for MK. It announced that the party would not be contesting seats at the 2017 General Election. As a consequence, he then had to spend much of the day dealing with the media – a live interview with Radio Cornwall at 7.00, and recorded interviews with both ITV and BBC Spotlight. It seemed strange that there was almost zero coverage of MK’s local election campaign on television and yet when they announced they were we not going to stand they got full coverage.
He has been personally responsible for more than forty successful grant applications, large and small. In all, over £570,000 has been secured for St Enoder Parish Council and other community groups.
These projects have included the construction of new community buildings, improvements to existing village halls, as well as the purchase and installation of new play equipment and skate parks.
Hopefully one day there will be proportional representation in England, giving Mebyon Kernow and the Green Party the chances that the SNP have in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.
2014 meeting with Natalie Bennett, then Green Party leader and Emily McIver of East Devon Green Party
Austerity 1: next year, UK ministers required to report progress on reinstating rights of people with disabilities
Equal Lives chief executive Mark Harrison said: “In a very short space of time we have gone from having some of the best rights in the world to a crisis situation where people are dying because of the barriers and discrimination caused by austerity.”
In 2015, a team of United Nations investigators began a two-week visit to the UK as part of an inquiry into allegations of “systematic and grave” violations of disabled people’s human rights.
Stephen Naysmith Social Affairs Correspondent of the Herald has reported that the UN Committee on the Rights of Disabled People has issued a 17 page report on the UK which contained more recommendations for improvement than for any other country in the committee’s 10 year history.
UK rapporteur to the committee Mr Stig Langvad, said the review had been “the most challenging exercise in the history of the Committee”, and criticised the government for failing to heed a 2016 inquiry which had found “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights.
He said Britain was “going backwards” in terms of meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, particularly by failing to enable disabled people to have the same choice and control in their lives as people without disabilities.
Key among its concerns was the disproportionate impact of austerity-led cuts on disabled people, with the report claiming disabled people had been left in poverty
- by cuts to benefits and support,
- the closure of the Independent Living Fund,
- the introduction of Universal Credit and
- the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments.
The Scottish Government was praised for consulting disabled people over its plans for introducing a new social security system, under devolved powers.
UK ministers are required to report back on progress to the committee within 12 months.