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If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the developments in UK politics over the past few weeks it’s this – Britain really is one strange country. There’s a bit of a cliché that armchair pundits like to expound when pontificating about the state of popular debate in Britain – that we’re all so apathetic and uninterested in politics that elections are essentially meaningless reality TV show games with a level of depth and complexity roughly akin to X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. There’s probably an element of truth in that, too – the electoral system in this country is essentially one in which people who have been more or less relegated to the role of spectator for several years are bombarded with statistics and policy arguments for 6 weeks before being asked to make a complete and informed decision about who they want to have the most important jobs in the country.
That may be the case, but I personally relish the bombardment of information, mostly because you learn a whole load of interesting and useless stuff about how the UK parliamentary system is mired in eccentricities and traditions rivalling a Masonic lodge in their head-scratching absurdity. For instance, I only found out last week that one of the most serious breaches of protocol for an MP to make is to pick up the gold mace which sits in the middle of the room and place it on the front bench of the side of the house where your opponent sits. In 2009, John McDonnell was suspended from the house for doing just that. Let’s get this straight – an MP was suspended from going to his primary place of work for moving a gold stick.
But chief amongst these weird traditions is, arguably, the entire voting system itself. One of the major policy proposals of the new coalition Government is to hold a referendum on our allegedly out of date first-past-the-post voting system in which constituencies elect their MP based on who won the most votes. A majority isn’t necessary, and in theory a candidate could find herself sitting in Parliament with only 20% of the actual vote. Furthermore, it leads to results in which a political party can lose out on the amount of votes overall in the country, yet still end up governing.
The more radical proposals for reform advocate a system whereby Parliament is representative of the vote of the entire country. 50% of the vote across the whole country should mean 50% of the seats in Parliament. This, it is argued, would give us a Parliament which is a more accurate depiction of the general political opinion of the country. It would also enable minority viewpoints to get legislative acknowledgement, with smaller parties such as the Green Party and, yes, the BNP getting more seats (the BNP, with roughly 1% of the vote, would get about 6 seats).
This just demonstrates the fundamental problem with the proportional representation system – greater representation doesn’t equal greater democracy. Democracy begins, not ends, at elections and having a system in which the Parliamentary process is forced to entertain sinister bigots like Nick Griffin and his cohorts may be more representative of Britain as a whole, but will result in much less actual democracy in the long-term. It’s difficult to imagine any member of the BNP taking into account the problems of ethnic minorities of homosexuals if they were ever visited by one in their surgeries.
Which brings me to the next problem with proportional representation – the loss of the local MP. Representation and democracy are not the same thing, and one of the cornerstones of British democracy is the ability for citizens to actually visit face-to-face their local constituency MP regarding matters which concern them and, hopefully, generate a result which is favourable to them. With proportional representation, the constituency MP would be lost – and the representation vs. democracy dichotomy would stare us straight in the face. First-past-the-post may not be the greatest system, and most things in politics can always bear some sort of overhaul or reform, but the proposals to replace fundamental elements of British democracy may result in a more representative Parliament, but less actual democracy in the long-term.