Sunday, June 7, 2015

Westminster and First Past The Post: A British political system not fit for purpose

Westminster is a living museum, in every sense of the word. A recent piece in "The Economist" gave an accurate and thought-provoking reminder of how impractical a place the Palace Of Westminster is to deal with the day-to-day tasks of dealing with British politics in the 21st century. Built in the middle of the 19th century, no-one would disagree that the building is an architectural masterpiece. But still using it in the same way in the 21st century as we do now is like insisting on using the same clapped-out, classic car that keeps failing its MOT and you can't fit your family into simply because it was your grandfather's. As reported some time ago, the building needs urgent repair work that would probably take at least several years, resulting in parliamentary business being conducted elsewhere.

Even on a practical basis, the current arrangements are an ad hoc solution. There is not enough space in the Palace Of Westminster for MPs to work, even to fit all the current MPs into the House Of Commons. When there is an important debate, many MPs have to stand; when there is an important vote, because - as pointed out in the "Economist" article, MPs are housed in any one of three separate buildings - there is a dash to get to the chamber in time. This is ridiculous. It may look good on TV to have MPs housed in the Palace Of Westminster, but it makes no sense in reality, least of all for the MPs themselves who have to deal with these issues every day.
And this is before mentioning the antiquated procedures and "traditions" that the recent cohort of neophyte SNP MPs are  - rightly - finding an absurd distraction from the business of politics. Some of these points (and the "fighting" over where to sit in the House Of Commons) were recently mentioned in a "Question Time" debate on the BBC (in the episode's first question). The SNP is looking at the way things are done in Westminster, compared to how things are done in Holyrood, and seeing the London institution as a place trapped by its own history, unable to deal with the realities of the 21st century.

The Palace Of Westminster is a museum piece, and should be treated and preserved as one: it is not a suitable place of work for 650 MPs and staff in the 21st century. It is a museum, and should be used as one. And this is without even mentioning the electoral system....

The most unfair election in history

A recent article pointed out the fact that the election result of the last election produced a result in parliament that was the most unrepresentative (compared to how people actually voted nationally) ever.
On the one hand, the Conservatives gained a majority of the seats in parliament based on 37% of the vote. The SNP took 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in Westminster based a little over half of the vote in Scotland. The Greens, who received over a million votes (a little under 4% of the national vote) only returned one MP. And then there is UKIP, who gained 12.5% of the national vote...and also returned only one seat in parliament.

Those figures there tell you the nature of the problem: while the electoral system has for decades not been a true reflection of the political reality, resulting in distortions that favour the two biggest parties, today the system has created not so much a distortion as a perversion of how politics is meant to work. In the multi-party reality of UK politics in 2015, we have an electoral system that is loaded massively in favour of the two main parties; clearly, much more in favour of the Tories at the moment.
In short, it could be called a "fix". It is not "democracy". As the electoral system favours the party in government (currently with a majority), the party with that position has no inclination to change the system. Ergo, the party in government has a stranglehold on parliament and the electoral system that benefits itself at the expense of the other (especially, smaller) parties. Furthermore, in this parliament the constituency boundaries are due to be redrawn in a manner that will benefit the Tories, giving them a further in-built advantage. With Labour likely to be out of office for ten more years, it is difficult to say what the UK will be like after fifteen years of Conservative rule in 2025.

So the hideous irony here is that as British politics becomes the most multi-polar it has been for generations (arguably, ever), the "natural party of government" - the Tories - tilt the system in the exact opposite direction. The UK has a multi-polar political environment with a political system weighed massively in favour of one party: the Conservatives. Only in Scotland does the system produce a different result, now weighed massively in favour of the SNP.

Not fit for purpose

The author has made comments on the easily "corruptible" nature of the British political system before. The British political system has always been a "fix" of one form or another, ever since the electoral franchise was extended beyond the landed classes. It could be argued that the system worked at its best (i.e. it best reflected the political reality) in the 1950s and '60s, when Labour and the Conservatives dominated British politics.
That system began to break down in the '70s in Scotland with the rise of the SNP, and Liberals more generally. In the 1980s, the SNP/Alliance were the victims of a system that didn't give any "space" for a third national party. From the '90s onwards, their successors, the LibDems, managed a way to get over some of the hurdles in their way, while by the time Labour gained office in 1997, the next thirteen years saw the system skewed in their favour instead, up to (and including) the 2010 election.

Britain has changed, but its political system remains fundamentally the same as it was two hundred years ago. Stepping away from the House Of Commons, to the House Of Lords, we see an assembly of hand-picked individuals, aristocrats and bishops - one of the world's last remaining bastions of modern-day feudalism in the developed world. This is masked in the tones of deference to the "mother of all parliaments" and reverence for "families that have generations of experience at the highest level of the decision-making process".
But this is simply masterful misdirection; something that the establishment has been good at for centuries.

The Tories are the party of the aristocracy, and have been since the 17th century. They know how to make people want to vote for them, and when you are up against (in the words of Alastair Campbell) a set of "ruthless bastards", what can you do?

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