Electoral system must change for the country to get what it needs
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Last week I found myself citing Confucius’s famous curse, “May you live in interesting times”. This week I have been struck by a more modern saying: “I don’t mind the despair, it’s the hope that kills me”.
Its origin has been attributed to any number of sources, from John Cleese to Nick Hornby, and I have heard it said many times at football matches, especially ones involving England penalty shoot outs. In that context its meaning couldn’t be clearer – in essence, can’t we just take the defeat, ref, and not bother with pretending we can win one of these.
Wherever it came from, this was an expression that haunted my day only this Monday. Along the south coast in Brighton at the Labour party conference, a motion had been put forward by the membership to direct the party towards enacting electoral reform, eg proportional representation.
My naïve heart fluttered with hope. Could this be it at last? Could the centre/centre-left (ie non-Johnson) sector of British politics be about to get its act together? Because ever since I left school in 1979, and the divisive Conservative hegemony all the way from then till 1997, I have only ever longed for one thing in politics – government from the centre.
Of course, old cynics say that those who stand in the middle of the road are bound to get run over, but that’s where I am, and I believe the vast majority of British people are too. We want people to make a success of their lives, to have the freedom to make wealth if they wish, but we also want a kind state which supports education, our environment and our health. Not too much to ask really.
Yet at the moment in the blue corner we have a Conservative party bent on the covert privatisation of the NHS and in the red corner, or at least that represented by the ongoing Momentum influence, we have unelectable fantasy fiscal policies.
So how does the centre get the representation it wants and the country needs? The answer, as ever, lies in our broken electoral system of first past the post (FPP). Even in the polarised Brexit election of 2019, Boris Johnson, on a 67.3% turnout, only won 43.6% of the popular vote, yet governs with a thumping majority. More than 56% did not want to see him in Downing Street at all.
Now this is not his fault; he had to fight on the rules set out for him by our daft unwritten constitution, but as we look around the looming chaos this week, it is clear that he is not up to the job. (FPP has previously favoured Labour too).
To their immense credit, the vast majority of Labour constituencies finally realised that the current system is now little more than a recipe for eternal Conservative rule. One modernising speaker in favour of the motion on Monday was Jake Bonetta from Honiton, who sits within our Democratic Alliance group at East Devon District Council.
So there I was, on Monday afternoon, allowing hope to seep into this battered, nearly sixty-year-old heart. There was a real chance this time. The motion, calling for a Labour government to replace first past the post with a form of PR, had come from more than 150 constituency Labour parties (CLPs). It was also the second most popular issue for the conference.
The drama heightened when a show of hands in the conference hall was not conclusive and it went to a card vote. This showed that very nearly 80% of the CLP votes backed the motion. But all hope was dashed when the votes from affiliates – almost entirely comprising unions – came in. 95% opposed the motion, and this meant that by Labour maths nearly 58% were against.
Hope United 0 Dinosaur Union Leaders 1. A tragedy, but champagne all round in Downing Street.