Brexit and our broken electoral system

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Posted on the 1st July 2016

This is a guest blog, originally published by Noel Longhurst. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Ever since the result of the EU referendum became clear early last Friday morning, those on the side of Remain have sought to point the finger of blame. Depending on your particular perspective, Leave voters, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, and Boris Johnson have all been incriminated. Some excellent analyses of the causes of the result have already emerged, but one factor that has not been widely acknowledged is that Brexit is fundamentally the consequence of an electoral system that is no longer fit for purpose. Moreover, it was actual New Labour who missed a unique opportunity to reform the system in the early 2000s.

Electoral reform appeared to be an important issue for Labour when it first got elected back in in 1997. Blair set up the Jenkins Commission in December 1997, which duly reported back with a recommendation for AV+ as a system. However, instead of using its accumulated political capital to attempt to reform the electoral system and bring it into the 21st Century, the proposed referendum was never held, and the commitment to electoral reform was quietly dropped from subsequent Labour manifestos until 2010 when a commitment to AV reappeared. Too late. An opportunity lost.

The effects of retaining an outdated and dysfunctional electoral system have played into this crisis in several ways, but here are some of the most important.

The two main parties are effectively broad political coalitions that the party leaders are required to hold together. There are parties within parties. David Cameron’s manifesto promise to hold a Referendum in the first place was in part a sop to the anti-European right wing of his party and also a reaction to the rise of UKIP. Thus the fateful decision to hold a referendum was itself a product of kind of politics that First Past the Post (FPTP) produces. A criticism of proportional representation is that they can give undue power to smaller parties. Well, bearing in mind that the majority of MPs supported Remain, it would appear that on this critical issue, FPTP gave a small minority undue political power over the future of the country. What’s more, the campaign itself then was then profoundly shaped by the leadership ambitions of key figures.

Secondly, in recent decades FPTP has disenfranchised large sections of the electorate. It has become clear that a significant proportion of the Leave vote was a protest vote against the political establishment, from people who used it as an opportunity to make themselves heard. Declining electoral turnout is another indication of longstanding disconnect. We know that many UKIP and Leave voters are former Labour supporters who no longer feel that the party speaks for them or addresses the issues in their lives. This, in part is due to Labour’s longstanding inability to discuss immigration, but it is also the function of a system that has taken those voter for granted, and instead ‘triangulated’ all its political programme around swing voters in marginal constituencies. By underpinning the ongoing existence of two dominant parties FPTP has also created a professionalized class of politicians who choose politics as career. This creates further distance between politicians and the public, quite the opposite of supposed benefits of a system that is organized solely around geographical constituencies.

And so that brings us to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that his rise is also, in part, an outcome of the dysfunctions of FTTP. Another set of voters that has been disenfranchised are those of a ‘progressive’ and leftwing persuasion who are socially liberal and oppose austerity and neoliberalism. Broadly speaking, in the UK these are the kind of people who get involved in social movements and direct action. Again, the current electoral system does not give them a meaningful political voice, whether through the Green Party or more radical left parties. And then, through the carelessness of the Labour Pary, they seized the opportunity to gett Jeremy Corbyn elected as party leader because he offered a vision that was qualitatively different to the dominant Labour/Tory economic narrative. And so we have another divided party. A parliamentary party which understands what is required to get elected under the current ‘rules of the game,’ and a membership who believe that the kind of agenda that gets you elected does nothing to solve some of the more deep rooted social and economic problems that many people face. Do you try and win try back core voters from the industrial heartlands, or the swing voters of a mythical Middle England?

But perhaps the most damning vindication of the system thought is the number of times that the phrase I didn’t think my vote would make a difference has been heard over the last week. The prevailing political system means that is that for many people you don’t expect your vote to matter. It doesn’t matter in many of the safe seats. It doesn’t matter in European elections where the centre of power is distant and opaque. It doesn’t matter in local elections, where democracy has been eviscerated and very little political power exists, a symptom of an overly centralized political system. Again, New Labour missed a golden opportunity to renew local politics and local democracy, but instead tinkered around the edges with the strange and ineffective Regional Assemblies. Is it any wonder that so many people didn’t understand the possible consequences of the vote when FPTP has so diminished the quality of political participation in the UK?

Defenders of FPTP have always argued that it produces strong government and political direction. That argument is looking pretty flimsy right now. Of course, introducing AV+ or another form of proportional representation would have been a political risk for New Labour. It may well have split the Conservatives, but it could also have split Labour. Other smaller parties would have gained support. But it would have been good for democracy, political culture and political debate. Perhaps the two main parties, rooted as they are in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, need to split. Perhaps it would be better for our democracy if they did. Perhaps it is better if other voices can be heard within the everyday political process. Instead, they have been heard through the result of the referendum. If the referendum has taught us anything it is that people will engage politically when they feel they might be able to change things. And it has also taught us that ultimately, if the system denies you a voice, you will be heard in other ways.

So what now? Whilst many progressives have despaired about the result we need to accept the result and seek to use it for progressive ends. Ultimately, the result has revealed that our political system is not fit for purpose and that the renewal of our democracy is perhaps the most pressing challenge that we face. Encouragingly some in the Labour party have been trying to put proportional representation back on the political agenda. And the idea of an electoral reform pact have been floated. It would be a fitting and ironic dénouement if, when looking back, the slogan ‘Take Back Control” was ultimately responsible for the development of a democratic system in which all citizens felt that they have a voice, and which was fit for the 21st Century. It is a task in which we should all be engaged.

You can follow Noel Longhurst on Twitter here.

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