In the UK today, it’s largely accepted that we should cherish and celebrate a culture of inclusion. We like to promote acceptance and diversity in all things – from religion and ethnicity, to age and sexual orientation. We even value diversity in the languages we speak to one another. Why is it then, when it comes to national politics, that the acceptance and accommodation of differing shades of opinion is so problematic? Why do we remain stubbornly stuck in a bi-polar world – a world of us and them? Why is the “first rule of politics club” always to fight your opponent as blindly and bitterly as you can?
Our modern political landscape is inherited from the 19th Century. It reflects the compromises and fudges that took place in the passage of the three Great Reform Acts, between 1832 and 1884. It also reflects a past where power was endlessly fought over by two opposing groups of men. One group championed ‘free trade’ and ‘liberal’ economics, whilst the other preferred only so much change as was necessary to prevent the boat from rocking. However, both came from essentially the same public school and Oxbridge background. Theirs was a world of combative debating societies, where winning the argument was always more important than being right. Doesn’t this all sound too familiar still? All the ‘traditional’ procedures and rituals of Parliament are testament to this history, and the confrontational design of the debating chambers merely reinforces it.
The bill which cemented the way we now do politics was the Representation of the People Act of 1918. This set the baseline principles of having only one MP per constituency and of electing MPs by first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting. Later bills mostly just modified or extended the arrangements agreed in 1918. However, it’s interesting to wonder how differently things might have worked out if a proposal to introduce proportional representation, discussed in 1918, hadn’t failed by just seven votes. How history might have unrolled in an alternative universe, we can only imagine.
Where are we now though? Do we have a rational system of government, or are we living in a country which, in the words of Disraeli, “is governed not by logic, but by Parliament”? Is a constitutional settlement that is largely the consequence of accidents of history and birth, and which reflects the vested interests of a bygone age, a good place to be as we face a climate emergency? Is it an appropriate platform from which to tackle an economy in freefall, the worst cost of living crisis in a generation, and crumbling public services? Can we even begin to address, never mind meet, the urgent demands of the 21st Century?
It seems like our constitution isn’t remotely fit for purpose. In the words of the old joke – if you wanted to arrive at an effective and responsive political system “you wouldn’t start from here”. A FPTP system can work well only where there are just two parties. Combine this with a five-year election cycle and single-member constituencies, and it’s an ideal recipe for the kind of shambles we now see. Our system encourages thinking that’s too short-term to deal with any of our big problems. A bi-partisan political landscape, steeped in a confrontational culture, and bolstered by winner-takes-all constituencies, leaves every debate little more sophisticated than “us good, them bad”. Where in all this is there room for complexity, for shades of grey, or for long-term planning? Where is the ground for compromise or consensus? Where is the space for discussion that can transcend the playground-style knockabout and name-calling?
Edmund Burke defined a political party as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”. Leaving aside his failure to mention half the population, his definition still holds up. The problem is that there are a lot more than two sets of principles on which it’s possible to agree. Both our main parties are already coalitions in all but name. However, the way we do politics prevents most of the shades of opinion they claim to represent from ever reaching the light of day.
We need to expose the true diversity of our political identities and maybe then we can start to have some grown-up conversations about how to get out of this mess. Only radical change to our electoral system can achieve this. We need proportional representation now even more than we did in 1918. Time is running out, and thinking that this shouldn’t be a priority is failing to see the wood for the trees.
Changing the voting system changes everything else.