Jonathan Bryant (Brighton & Hove, Direct Democracy): Conor Burns argued recently on Conservativehome.com about the need for the Conservative Party to embrace limited reform of our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, primarily due to its in-built bias against the Tories. Whilst this is undoubtedly true at the current point in time, Direct Democracy believe that the real problem which urgently needs addressing is not so much to do with the regional vagaries of FPTP, but that the current electoral system - with so many safe seats and one party fiefdoms - does not produce a parliament capable and willing to hold the executive to account. We need a system that produces a genuine legislature, not cheerleaders for the current or future government. Therefore, any proposed reforms should proceed on this basis.
We are, by and large, open minded about the need for change, but are adamant that this must not mean "party lists". The arguments for and against this type of PR have been rehearsed ad infinitum and I don't intend to go over them here. Suffice to say that the key objection from Direct Democracy's point of view is that it snatches power from the hands of the voters and drop it into the laps of the party Whips. When candidates owe everything to their position on their party's list, they have very little incentive to represent their constituents' wishes. By removing the personal vulnerability of our politicians, we create a caste of careerist technocrats who need barely listen to their electorates. This explains the chasm that has opened across so much of Europe between the parties and the voters - not least on the question of European integration itself.
So, if we don't support this type of electoral reform what measures would we like to see introduced to restore some sense of legitimacy to our national Parliament?
First, the best way of ensuring open competition, without major change, is for parties to select candidates via open primary. This means that even sitting MPs would need to be re-adopted as the party's candidate in a process involving all local voters. If it is ok to subject incumbent US Presidents to this degree of direct democratic scrutiny, MPs are surely not too grand to be exempt. Indeed, the Conservative Party is now starting to use this process across the country - the most high profile case being the selection of Boris Johnson as London Mayoral candidate.
Secondly, we believe that there would be considerable merit in having multi-member constituencies. Multi-member seats (2 or 3 representatives per constituency) would mean less control for party bosses in selecting candidates and greater freedom for independent minded MPs. In our world of worthy (or indeed, not so worthy) career politicians, this would bring a welcome breath of fresh air to local and national politics.
However, having said all this, the real problem with our politics that needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency has nothing to do with which system we use to elect a Government or local council. It is often argued by proponents of PR that by eliminating the concept of a ‘wasted' vote, electoral turnout will increase, as people will feel it more worth their while to take that trip down to the polling station. We do not subscribe to this thesis. Reform of our electoral system in isolation will not reengage ordinary people overnight with a political governance structure that has become alien to them. The problem of the so-called democratic deficit and declining turnout is more deep-seated than that. Fundamentally, people are disengaged, not because they aren't interested in political issues but because the cross they put on their ballot paper, be it as part of a system of PR or FPTP, has precious little bearing on their everyday lives. The decisions that actually matter to people are made by functionaries who are outside the democratic process: the Child Support Agency, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the Planning Inspectorate and a plethora of other quangos stretching right up to the European Commission. Until we have a political system where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people that are affected by them, and where proper systems of accountability are placed upon key public service decision makers, any amount of tinkering with the electoral system will remain largely academic.