15 May 2005
Just a quick post - and a warning - on a sunny May morning. There is a gathering of what has been called ‘Britblogs’ in the wake of the meeting that launched Storm for Reform. Many of us will be there in the flesh for the vigil on Tuesday 17th May at Downing Street. Robin Grant of perfect has a great overview of the ongoing debate. Nosemonkey of Europhobiagives key quotes of what was said at the meeting (although I think real names should be used by reformers, to set an example for open government). There is an overview by Tim Hicks in Plone, who also takes the argument to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, while after a run in with software that vaporised his work (it happens to the best of us) Paul Davis of Make Votes Count links everyone including dedicated colleague Tom Steinberg of mysociety who has built notapathetic.com . This initiative seems to have been overlooked by Dominic Hilton in his terrific, must-read overview in openDemocracy.net of the rise of what should now be called targetted campaigning - rather than just tactical voting. But I just want to add my cautionary note to the focus on the electoral aspect of the British system. It is the whole system that is the problem not just its electoral pistons. In an impressive article in The Nation Naomi Klein describes how torture ‘works’. Its function, she suggests, is not to get information out of prisoners, it is to strike fear into the wider public and make us hesitate more than twice before questioning power. What has this got to do with electoral reform? Well, in his Channel 4 TV documentary on the election which I blogged at the time (26 April) Peter Oborne showed how computerised surveillance allowed parties to identify the most likely swinging voters within the marginal constitutiences that decide elections in Britain. The Conservatives found that two characteristics of those most likely to ‘swing’ are that they have moved recently and are heavily in debt. That is to say, people whose local attachments are weak and who live with the stress of debt, are those most likely to change their vote. And what will swing them? Answer: those who live in fear are prone to be swung by fear. This is a key reason why the Tories calculated that profiling the dangers of immigration and asylum might benefit them decisively. In other words, the first-past-the-post system makes the whole electorate vulnerable to the anxieties of the few. A population that is wise enough to be measured, even cool, about the risks of terror and immigrants finds itself a prisoner of those most vulnerable to being panicked. This, then, is a profound reason why Britain needs a fairer voting system that enfranchises all voters. But those who want electoral reform in the UK need to understand the first best response to the human rights violations that accompany torture and hyper-security measures is very firm and clear constitutional safeguards for fundamental human rights. Concerns about democracy and human rights in the United Kingdom, which outstanding advocates like Helena Kennedy have raised, parallel concerns over the voting system. A wide and successful campaign for reform needs to connect them and think in terms of a British constitution as a whole, no one reform can be an an adequate substitute for the others. This, I suppose, is where, after drawing a deep breath, I disagree with Billy Bragg. He argues that the next step is Lords reform on the grounds that ours is still a one-step-at-a-time time. It isn't.