Do we actually understand our parliamentary system?

There’s a general election on its way. You might have noticed, but if you haven’t: it’s on Thursday 7 May 2015 at a polling station near you, during which the 650 constituencies of the United Kingdom will elect one person each to represent them in the House of Commons.

It is worth noting that we in Britain elect a single member of parliament to represent us—we do not elect a party, neither do we elect a Prime Minister. We elect a person; and these persons subsequently group themselves together, at which point the largest of these groups forms a government.

OK, so the party affiliations of each candidate are well-known before votes are cast, but the principle stands: people often vote for someone they like even though they might not be too keen on their party. This is our system, and it has worked extremely well for quite a few centuries.

Yet some people – advocates of proportional representation in particular – don’t seem to get this. They propose that if a political party wins, say, ten percent of votes, it should be allocated ten percent of seats. First Past The Post, they say, prevents this, which is supposedly undemocratic.

There’s a logic to their argument, of course there is. It’s the logic of PR. It is also a logic that begins from a misunderstanding about our system. That is a problem. Our system is not primarily a party system. It is a system of individual, personal representation, whereby those individual MPs are accountable to their constituents—not to their party.

Of course MPs are accountable to their parties, you might say. What are the whips for if not to ensure MPs answer to their party? Sure, but their first loyalty is to their constituents. MPs are elected by their constituents, not by their parties.

I raise the point because James Kirkup has been wondering how many seats UKIP will win. He concludes that it is unfair for them to get only one percent of seats in the Commons if they have won ten percent of votes. Not only is it unfair, but it will also feed one of the resentments he believes fuels support for UKIP in the first place. Namely:

‘Ukip is at least in part an expression of anger at the system, the cosy Westminster establishment that Kippers believe colludes to ignore and frustrate their wishes and the wishes of the electorate as a whole.’

He fears that if UKIP voters notice the discrepancy, they will only become more frustrated with the system:

‘Because an electoral system that could well leave a party with 2.5 million voters holding just 2 seats in the legislature is a poison that could kill faith in representative democracy.’

He has a point. People do say that our political system is a conspiracy against the people. But if that is the case, it might be a good idea if the people had our ‘system’ explained to them. That way, they might not get so angry.

It is false to assume that an MP voted into parliament on, say, thirty percent of the vote cannot represent the seventy percent of constituents who did not vote for him or her. Representation is not an absolute. There will be times when even the thirty percent feel their opinions are not being adequately represented by the person they elected. (For example: Conservative MPs agreeing to defence cuts against the wishes of many of their voters).

But that’s the nature of politics. That’s what happens when you elect one person to represent thousands of people. They all have their own pesky point of view. That’s the problem with people: their individuality. It’s what certain celebrities playing at politics don’t realise. There is no way to represent everyone’s view absolutely in parliament. Those who think there is simply misunderstand how representative democracy works.

I am not referring to James Kirkup here. But his thought about FPTP is interesting:

‘First-past-the-post really is a conspiracy between the Conservatives and Labour against smaller rivals and against the electorate.’

FPTP certainly encourages a two-party system, even though sectarian loyalties in some parts of the country seem to refute this principle. It is indeed one of the arguments cited in favour of FPTP: that it enables strong government and an easy way to change government.

But the charge that FPTP is ‘a conspiracy… against the electorate’ is the exact same charge levelled at PR. Which one is it? It’s probably both, up to a point. But that brings us back to the original point: people not understanding our system.

We do not have PR. We have FPTP. And the main advantages of FPTP are that it enables strong government; it offers a straightforward way to change government; and, perhaps most important of all, even though I put it last, it allows us to cling to the notion that we are represented by an individual and not by a party machine.

There may be weaknesses to the system as it stands today, but there are weaknesses in all systems (as James Kirkup acknowledges). We miss the point if we simply look at the maths and deduce that our system is junk because a small party gets a higher proportion of votes than seats.

Our system is not about voting for parties. It is about voting for people. If we don’t like voting for people, and want to vote for parties instead, leaving the selection of MPs even more in the hands of parties than it is now, then fine. But let’s be clear about what we will be doing. And let’s be clear that there will be consequences, some of which we won’t like.


Conservatives win the Newark by-election

The earthquake is over apparently. The Conservative Party has won the Newark by-election and the UKIP fox has been shot for the mangy creature it is. This is the gleeful tone many are taking, and will continue to take, out of desperation that maybe their worldview is not the worldview of as many people as they thought.

The indignation that quite a lot of people are not in benign agreement with current policies concerning the EU and mass immigration is tangible. And a favourite way to attack an inconvenient presence is to construct a straw man – who cares what one does to an inanimate straw man?

In this case it is to pretend that UKIP expect to win the 2015 General Election, or at the very least win enough seats to occupy a sizeable block on the green Westminster benches. When they fail, as they surely will if this is the absurdly high bar over which they are expected to jump, the crowing can quicken and everyone can be reassured that the British people are neither racist nor xenophobic nor bigoted and that the incumbents of power were right about almost everything all along.

The thing is, straw men arguments are not real. Fabricate something your opponent says or does and then demonstrate with smug and abundant ease how they are wrong or have failed in their objective. It’s an old trick, but a favourite. As it happened, the figures, far from reassuring the Conservatives, should worry them considerably – and Labour, who won Newark in 1997. UKIP support could very well drift away, but the evidence suggests not just yet. Here are the results from the BBC:

  • Robert Jenrick (Con) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82%).
  • Roger Helmer (UKIP) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09%).
  • Michael Payne (Lab) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65%).
  • Paul Baggaley (Ind) 1,891 (4.89%).
  • David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%).
  • David Watts (LD) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41%).
  • Con majority 7,403 (19.13%) 15.46%
  • Turnout 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69%)

I don’t know what the psephologists will make of this data. Perhaps we will be told to account for the ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude some voters assume at by-elections; perhaps we will be told that the high UKIP vote is the result of momentum which will run out before next year’s election. But whatever we are told, it is difficult to see how anyone can regard the UKIP vote, 25.9% no less, as anything other than highly significant. They polled more than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.

The threat posed by UKIP to the status quo has never been – and almost certainly won’t be for some time, if ever – taking enough seats to create that sizeable Westminster block, let alone forming a government. The threat is that UKIP takes enough votes to alter the outcome of the General election, or to deny one of the two major parties a majority.

And on the basis of the local council elections, the EU election and this by-election, the UKIP threat is still very much present. It might fall away, that much we should all concede not least because of our First-Past-The-Post system; but the evidence so far suggests the earthquake is not over yet, even if it remains rather low on the Richter Scale.

Moses, the EU, the Labour Party and Conservative loonies

It’s a little-known fact that, shortly before Moses staggered down Mount Sinai under the weight of those two stone tablets, he dropped and broke a third; and, rather than admit he was a clumsy oaf, pretended God only gave him two. You didn’t know? Well, don’t worry, neither did I until about thirty seconds ago, so it doesn’t reflect too badly on you. Anyway, written on the third tablet, and now forgotten in all but the most select of academic circles, were the words: ‘Thou shalt not appear sane whilst speaking of the European Union. (By ‘Thou,’ I mean Conservatives)’ – God’s words precisely!

And so, from that day to this, it’s been a dead cert that, whenever Conservatives start talking about the European Union, they also start frothing and writhing like lunatics. And, because we’re not as progressive and civilised and capable of rational debate as we like to think we are, the insults are never far behind: ‘God! They’re right loonies, aren’t they?’ – That sort of thing.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever seen the news, even if by mistake while searching for one of those life-affirming programmes like EastEnders or Big Brother. We don’t even need to know about the other commandments, it’s just a well-known fact that, when Conservatives come into contact with the EU, the ensuing tumult is a bit like when a little boy comes into contact with soap and water.

What may surprise you, however, is to hear Conservatives calling other Conservatives loonies. But, as this is only an allegation, and I believe the plaintiff is thinking about suing, I’m going to put it on record that I don’t believe a single libelous word of it – unless, that is, someone proves otherwise in a court of law.

Yet all this froth obscures the true divisions within the Conservative party. Some Conservatives say the EU is great and that we would be mad to leave, others say it’s pretty great but not perfect and just needs a bit of reform, and others say the EU is a leopard with unchangeable spots and we must leave it to munch away on its own carcass (starting at the peripheries).

Of course, a certain type of Tory critic loves all this. They really do think the argument makes the Conservatives look loony; that it proves how right they were about them all along; and that the public will conclude that they should never ever ever vote Tory ever ever again, because if they do, well, they’ll be loony, too – only they wouldn’t use such derogatory language.

In part, this implies that the EU is a significant issue only while Conservatives talk about it. Stop talking about it and the issue goes away, or better still solves itself. You can understand why Conservatives have been reluctant to open up old wounds, scarred as they were by Margaret Thatcher’s removal from office, Maastricht, ERM expulsion and being branded xenophobic for even mentioning the subject let alone discoursing on it in anything other than glowing terms.

But this is all nonsense, as I think I’ve said before. The reason the EU is such a messy issue is not because the Conservatives (and now Ukipers) bang on about it all the time (which they don’t), but because it’s an issue of existential importance, cutting across issues of sovereignty, democracy, economic prosperity and culture that are most certainly of pressing importance.

The irony is that this was all clear last time the issue became really messy, when John Major was negotiating with his friends over Maastricht. The weakening of democracy, the dangers of a single currency and the increase of EU political authority were all evident during those Maastricht negotiations. It’s just that the political establishment chose to ignore the dangers at the time.

The problem for the Conservatives is not so much that talking about the EU is always going to be difficult for them (although it probably is); the problem is that they are not yet prepared to admit that the EU is an issue they need to tackle head on rather than skirt around. Avoiding the fundamental implications of the project, as previously defined in the Maastricht Treaty and now the Lisbon Treaty, merely delayed the proper debate they needed to have.

Labour has more or less resolved its position: the party is for it, right or wrong; that is their united view, and the public knows it and can vote accordingly. The Conservatives have still to make up their minds. Some are for it, some are against it and some just want it reformed. The difficulty comes from not seeking to reconcile these differences. Until they do this, the party will continue to look confused, divided and untrustworthy, which is electoral kryptonite.

The EU is like all other great political issues: at some point it must be discussed properly

Commentators are already disputing the Prime Minister’s wisdom in saying what he’s just said about the EU. But at least he has spoken. For too long Conservatives seem to have been in thrall to the idea that the EU is only a problem because they keep talking about it. Peter Oborne says the sensible and wise policy until now has been to ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ There is another refrain much loved by some: ‘Banging on about Europe.’ If the Conservatives could just avoid the issue or kick it into the long grass then the problem would disappear.

This view established itself around the time of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. So harrowing was the experience for John Major that the party leadership took away this one salutary (so they thought) lesson – that the best way to deal with the European issue was to ignore it. A score of ‘rebels’ voted against the government and from then on the party was caught in a fear of being split.

The scars of Maastricht are still evident. It is one of the reasons David Cameron has been so reluctant to talk about it. Focus-group ninjas told us the public was turned off by the issue, mostly because it made politicians look a bit frothy around the mouth. Had it not been for the growing distress of the eurozone, the advent of a new generation of Conservatives unashamed of their scepticism, and worries over UKIP, it’s not clear that the PM would have given his speech at all. Circumstances, perhaps, rather than inclination forced his hand.

But what if the real problem is something else – something opposite to be precise? What if the real source of Conservative stress over Europe is that they spend too much time trying not to talk about it or trying to pretend it isn’t one of the most pressing and significant issues of the age. One can see the attraction – a problem avoided is a problem solved. But this is simply burying one’s head in the sand in the hope that danger can’t see you.

Such thinking is not new. Politicians frequently pretend problems don’t really exist. Take mass immigration. If there is a problem with mass immigration, so the intimation goes, it is in talking about it, because its mere discussion is inflammatory. Nothing to do with numbers or pressure on resources or anything like that. The irony is that because politicians are afraid of the issue, certain elements of the press dominate the discussion with their own distorting views, from all wings of the media. Same with the deficit. Admittedly, the Conservatives spend a lot of time talking about Labour’s economic mess, but on this one it’s Labour who is guilty of pretending an issue is not an issue even though they know full well it is.

Europe is a headache for the Conservatives because too many seem to believe they can ignore the central question, which is whether they are for it or against it. John Major’s Maastricht opt out on the Social Chapter was seen as a victory, but it was nothing of the sort. All it took was an incoming Labour government and a wave of a pen and all that negotiation was made defunct. He ended up displeasing both the europhiles and the sceptics. Lancing a boil is messy whenever you do it, but at least it’s been dealt with.

His mistake was to pretend there was a pain-free solution to the split in opinion. There was none. Issues have to be dealt with, not fudged. That is the point of them. The debate in the Conservative party should have taken place there and then. Either the party was in favour of UK participation in the EU, accepting its desire for monetary and political union, or it was not. If for it, all demands, once we’d had our say, should have been accepted; if against it, we should have blocked the treaty or withdrawn ourselves from the club and negotiated our future relationship in the manner of all other countries of the world.

This, I’m afraid, is a battle still to be played out and David Cameron has set the thing in motion. Either the growing ranks of sceptical Conservatives must mellow and accept the EU, or the PM must change his mind and put the Conservative party at the forefront of rejection of the EU.

The issue must be faced and a decision made, in or out. The chances of the PM negotiating a new relationship for the UK from within the EU are extremely low, and that’s assuming he will win the next election and be in a position to negotiate. Even if he does get something, it will simply have the effect of making the EU even more of an organisational mess than it already is, what with current moves to create some sort of fiscal union to go with the monetary and the foreign and everything else.

There will also remain the little matter of diminishing democracy, which the PM has already identified. Slowly but steadily, despite protestations that the project is enhancing democracy, it is being diminished, and we really don’t know what the fall out will be when the divergent peoples of Europe finally realise that they are not in charge of their countries or their lives as they thought they were after the Second World War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.