It’s the 24th May, Wednesday mid-day. We have just fought our way through the ‘sardine can’ experience that is the London Underground, surfaced into the light and – ‘fresh-ish’ air. Westminster is sunny but there’s a chill wind as we make our way across the front of the Houses of Parliament, between the brooding statues of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, almost carried along by the crowd going in the same direction.
These days, there are a bewildering number of police around the Palace of Westminster, usually in groups of three or four, with so much weaponry strapped around their bodies that you wonder if they haven’t just come from the armament version of the old Eamonn Andrews ‘Crackerjack’ TV show where you got to keep whatever you could carry away.
They had sidearms, MP5 submachine guns, handcuffs, batons, stun grenades tear gas canisters, and goodness knows what else. I looked for the old whistle and the notebook, but sadly …
We pressed on, passing the entrance to the Victoria Tower Gardens garden. Standing in the shadows a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the formidable family who fought so hard for women’s suffrage, stands guard. Emmeline is a stark reminder of why we are here.
Just a couple of blocks away is the Emmanuel Centre, almost opposite that fount of compassion and democracy that is the Home Office. Here, at Emmanuel, hundreds were gathering to show their support for the Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting and hear 8 speakers, supporters of the PR system, share their views.
Here’s Hina Bokhari, Liberal Democrat Member of the London Assembly, a PR based council.
This is what she said about lack of representation:
“I have never voted for the person who became my MP. I’ve never had an MP who related to the political party of my choice. I’ve never had an MP that I actually wanted”.
One of the objections the Tory party gives against moving to a PR system is that it would damage the MP/Constituency link. Here is Hina Bokhari again:
“I grew up in a Tory held constituency. My MP never knocked on doors, never had a regular surgeries, never gave any MP updates”.
It seems too many people are feeling excluded from the democratic process – the message being that they don’t matter. PR can change that. ‘Fairness’ and ‘inclusivity’ are their watchwords. The voter ID rule is a wonderful example of exclusion. Worse still, it was claimed to counteract voter fraud when voter fraud has never been a significant problem in the UK. It was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
Laura Parker, from the ‘Labour for a New Democracy’ movement had a lot to say about exclusion, including this:
“I am sick of going to vote, thinking all the while, there isn’t much point because it won’t make any difference, and my voice won’t be heard. The reason we want PR is because we want fairness. It isn’t about locking other parties out power!!! We just want a level playing field”.
Note the ‘inclusivity’ – a refreshing change from the current combative Westminster rhetoric.
Laura was followed by Tommy Shepherd from the SNP (Edinburgh East) who hit us with some pertinent observations on the background workings of our so-called democracy.
- “Britain is the only country, apart from Iran, to have clerics sitting in the legislature as a right.
- “Britain is one of the few countries where the majority of parliamentarians are not elected” (There are around 780 sitting peers in the House of Lords, many as a reward for political service).
- “Britain is one of the very few European countries to have no proper system of regional autonomous government at a local level. It remains a centralised state.”
This reduced power of our local authorities is well documented and is testament to the Government’s aim of centralising power and weakening local democracy.
That took about an hour – all the speakers giving a masterclass in brevity and relevance.
The 2019 General Election data
Away from the conference I started digging around on the internet. The anomalies in the 2019 election statistics provide some powerful arguments for a fairer voting system. The Tories received 43.6% of the votes cast, and were rewarded with 56.2% (365) of the seats. Given a voter turnout out of 67%, that 43.6% is actually 28.8% of eligible voters. The ‘mandate’ the Tories love to boast about is only just over one quarter the nation as a whole.
Furthermore, the Green Party received 2.6% of the votes cast (about 7% of the Tories’ votes) but were rewarded with a single parliamentary seat, about 0.02% of the Tory seats. With PR, they would have secured 25 seats.
There were also 206,486 votes for independent candidates. That’s a sizeable and meaningful group. Independent candidates are independent precisely because they have no faith in the current party system. But there is no MP from this group. There were also 117,919 blank or invalid votes. It’s hard to dismiss the idea that there is some distrust of party politics in that group too.
A government website suggests that the 30 lowest turnouts were predominantly from the Midlands and the North. These are the areas where much is promised and little delivered. No wonder there is apathy. So why did 33% of the nation decide not to vote at all? The argument that they felt it just wasn’t worth the effort, is difficult to ignore.
One party dominance
This one party dominance has a very long history. It started with the aristocracy/landowners and encompassed the commerce of the Middle Ages and the entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution. The Tories are their inheritors. Their beliefs and ideology are very much entrenched in the ideas of that that era.
According to their Wikipedia entries, Tories believe in the “natural traditional law of hierarchy” – (class system, elitism and inequality). They believe in a deference to authority – theirs. Judging by the leaked letter from the Wellingborough Conservative Association they also believe in using any means including lying to gain and stay in power – power for its own sake. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of us who just want a level playing field.
The church had, and has, a part to play in all this. Their hierarchical model of society was embedded in a well-known hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, the third verse of which goes something like this:
“The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate”
Yet, in my experience, if you talk to Conservatives individually, you will find a ‘broad church’ of views. Talk to them as a party, and ranks are closed and party loyalty holds sway. It’s as if their own individual identity is so tightly bound to the party identity that stepping out of line is inconceivable. There is, of course, the added influence of their childhood upbringing shaping their beliefs.
Wealth has allowed them to cling to those historic beliefs of superiority and ‘right to govern’, immune from doubts and from the distress of the poor and vulnerable. Even the former ‘Today’ presenter, John Humphries, casually remarked once that “the poor were always with us”. Well, maybe, but that doesn’t make it right.
There is also another factor that is rarely mentioned – linked to wealth. I’m reminded of Abe Lincoln who was fairly convinced that “you can’t fool all people all the time”. I think you can – if the advertising is good and the budget is big enough.
I’m talking about the election funding and the vested interests of the wealthy Tory supporters providing that funding. This isn’t altruism. They expect a ‘quid pro quo’ or “We’ll support you if you support us”. This gives donors power, so Parliament serves the interests of the wealthy. It is very widespread – almost ‘pandemic’.
A wealth gap even shows up in elections. In one recent election, I seem to remember that Labour had about £1.5m for the campaign, the Tories had about £12m. Money talks – particularly when it drives a publicity campaign that dominates the political dialogue in the media.
What can we do?
It seems immovable, but it isn’t. At this moment there are a number of regional Bylines online newspapers all promoting PR. West England Bylines have already published an article on Oxfordshire’s councils lending official support to PR. Organisations like ‘Make Votes Matter’ and ‘Compass’ (with their ‘Win as One’ campaign) are championing PR and working hard to raise public awareness.
One thing the Tories do well is organise, act as a unit, stick together regardless. The PR lobby should do the same. But beware. There will be a lot of resistance – and I do mean, a lot. Forget about looking for common sense and fairness. These guys have a lot to lose and they will defend what they see as their territory – to the death.