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Undemocratic reform

Dominic Hilton
17 May 2005

There’s a disproportionate fuss going on at the heart of British democracy.

Last week, I wrote about the legions of little democratic platoons up and down the country who made a crucial impact on the results of the UK general election. “British democracy is busy,” I gushed, “organising, connecting, advocating, mastering statistics, thinking strategically.”

I was getting quite excited.

This week, my mood has changed. I’m now a little edgy. Back in the nation’s capital, my ears burning once again aside the din of London’s chattering classes, I’m witness to a different kind of political momentum, and I don’t think it’s particularly democratic at all.

According to Nina Temple, the director of the pressure group for electoral reform Make Votes Count, I’m party to the “early rumblings of a democratic revolution.”

But this supposed “democratic revolution” is decidedly suspect. It is being run by what I hesitate to call “the usual suspects”. And I’m sorry to say I smell an elitist plot.

It sounds improbable, but in the world’s oldest democracy, electoral reform, that most soporific of subjects, is suddenly seriously sexy stuff. Everywhere you turn, some proportionally-challenged enthusiast is banging on about Additional Member Systems and Single Transferable Votes.

The Independent has launched a big noise front page “Campaign for Democracy”. Columnists of all papers are outscribbling each other to slander the existing first-past-the-post electoral system and advance the case for change. A campaign, “Create a Storm for Reform”, has been kicked-off by Make Votes Count, led by the socialist folk singer Billy Bragg. The House of Commons hosted a packed meeting of those concerned by what Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee calls “such tyrannical abuse of democracy”. As 100 Labour MPs join the calls for reform, a special parliamentary committee has been appointed to report on the multifarious inconsistencies and imbalances of Britain’s democracy.

Then, on 17 May, as Queen Elizabeth II busted it to parliament to deliver her government’s plans, a vigil of gagged protestors encamped outside Downing Street. According to one participant, openDemocracy editor-in-chief Anthony Barnett, only about 100 people showed, before gagging themselves and booing the Prime Minister as his motorcade skidded past. “We were shaking,” Barnett told me. Not with anger, but because it was “so f****** cold!”

“It wasn’t a historic, mass event,” Barnett concedes, but he’s convinced “the spirit of democracy is now becoming tangible”.

Democracy, in this context, means Britain adopting some form of proportional electoral set-up (PR). The pitiful show at Downing Street will not stop the well-connected proponents of reform piping up in London’s notoriously nepotistic media and political circles.

Ben Ramm, editor of The Liberal magazine put it to me that “A democracy with greater democracy is a valuable end in itself.” But to my mind, there’s something profoundly undemocratic about this clamour for greater democracy. Indeed, as a democrat, this whole frenzy for reform makes me extremely uncomfortable.

There’s no denying that Britain’s current electoral arrangement is not just flawed, it is decidedly loopy. Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a comfortable Parliamentary majority of sixty-six when only one in five of the British electorate voted Labour. The absurdity of the mathematics speaks volumes, yet deputy prime minister John Prescott claims the British government has an “overwhelming democratic mandate”. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, states bluntly that “Labour won fair and square” and dismisses proponents of reform as “bad losers”.

Nevertheless, the alternative may just be worse. What appears to motivate the reformers is an old-fashioned thirst for power.

Pro-proportional reforming types think they’ve got the case sewn up. The arguments against PR are nothing but “tired old points” says Toynbee. “I can rehearse in my sleep the standard arguments against PR,” sighs Ferdinand Mount in the Daily Telegraph. Leftist websites like perfect.co.uk and thesharpener.net confidently refute what they see as “the myth of mischief” of opposing PR – complexity; the link between a constituent and his/her MP; the encouraging of extremist parties; undue influence of minority parties; fragmentation; weak government; etcetera.

But for me, there are two greater arguments against Britain answering the call of the gagged Downing Street protestors.

The first is an objection I best heard articulated by Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, at a recent event at the London School of Economics. PR helps to “entrench the fossilisation of the body politic,” Strathclyde said. In other words, with PR, as in Italy, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the same old faces appear time and time again, never out of power. This does zilch to bridge the clear gap between citizens and their government, and is spectacularly unlikely to renew and refresh interest and trust in politics and politicians.

The second objection concerns me more. In Britain, PR is a “progressive” stitch-up, a way to secure a left/centre-left domination of public life and bury the Conservative Party.

Many proponents of PR are perfectly open about this. Indeed, this, they say, is why PR is a must. Toynbee writes of her fear that a greater proportion of the electorate might vote Tory at the next election “So what’s to be done?” Answer: cement power through a new electoral system, guaranteed to sideline the enemy. Jonathan Freedland, also of the Guardian, wants to slay “The old Tory bogeyman” and maintain the “victorious coalition” and its “binding agent of a shared hatred of the Tories”. With PR, “on paper, at least, Britain’s progressive majority would have the parliamentary strength to keep the Tories at bay.” Freedland thinks this is “principled and pragmatic”.

Tyranny, anyone? Tony Blair has long talked of his dream of securing a “progressive century” in which the “forces of conservatism” are consigned to the trashcan of history. Only last week, he bragged to the parliamentary Labour Party of “entrenching progressive politics every bit as powerful as the Tories were in the first 100 years.” Blair needs a legacy and adapting the electoral system to guarantee social democratic governments might just be it.

And underneath the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, this “liberal” shutdown gets even more disturbing. Writing in Red Pepper, Jeremy Gilbert maintains “PR is the only way to cement the progressive consensus which Blair et al have always talked about, marginalising both the Tories and the Daily Mail readers of Middle England forever.” Tacticalvoter.net, the successful website that enables voters to elbow-out Tories by swapping their Labour and Liberal Democrat votes, shamelessly states its aims as to “stop the Tory threat, and then to encourage a more open-minded political debate between Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and other voters.”

Open-minded? This is colossally undemocratic logic and it exposes the mindset behind this leftist crusade.

“We could be reaching the point on electoral reform where principle and self-interest meet,” Stephen Twigg, iconic Labour MP who was ousted on 5 May, told the Times. Exactly. The logic of all Labour’s constitutional reforms has been the same: we’ll do anything, so long as it entrenches Labour power. Democracy has nothing to do with any of it. “Labour will come round to change once they are in a situation where they face losing power,” Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society told me.

As someone who doesn’t favour the “social democratic consensus”, I’ve good cause for concern. Britain has no constitution that guarantees the things I wish to preserve: individual liberty, limited government, free markets, democratic rights.

Say what you will about the first-past-the-post – and I and many others could say a lot – it ends up producing strangely representative outcomes. Electoral systems are as much about expectations as anything else. In 2005, the British electorate clearly wanted to return a Blair government though with a reduced majority and a “bloody nose”. And this is exactly what they got. On the morning of 6 May, Tony King and BBC political correspondent Andrew Marr were hailing “electoral magic – no-one did it, but it happened.”

Is PR an answer? As I wrote last week, it’s evident that voters are learning to use the existing system to their advantage, and thereby through their organisation and action making elections more democratic. And really, is it the result, or the fact that the winner gains such constitutionally unchecked power, that bothers us? If Blair had his hands tied and there were clear limits to his essentially monarchical power, would we be so hot for the “democratic revolution” of proportional representation?

“Between elections Labour people forget about the Tories, often never meeting any in real life,” writes Polly Toynbee. And herein lies the problem! To stitch-up this kind of undemocratic spirit would be disastrous for Britain.

Toynbee and Anthony Barnett may enthusiastically (and cunningly) hail the pair of Tories who made it (uninvited) to the 12 May protest meeting as some kind of evidence of electoral reformers’ openness. But two Tories, I must insist, are not … well, they’re not proportionally representative.

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