26 February 2018

Democracy for the many, not just the few


I was invited to this event my a Facebook friend and being interested in democracy I was glad that it was on a theatre-free evening so I could attend. The location suited me too though the 7pm start was bit of a challenge (theatres normally start at 7:30pm), luckily the staff at Wagamama were up to the challenge and I was in and out of there within twenty minutes.

I liked the format of the evening, which was not unlike Gurteen and LIKE events that I go to. We started with four speakers limited to just five minutes each (I'm not sure they all managed that) on why they thought Proportional Representation (PR) is a good think for democracy and for Labour. We then collected in four self-selecting groups to address four different questions. We did this for about half an hour before regrouping for a brief summary session.

As usual at these sort of events I talked a lot and struggled to keep notes while doing so. What follows is some highlights from those notes and some subsequent expansion of those ideas made after the event.

It was not clear whether democracy was seen as a good thing in itself, even though it can lead to the German stand-off situation, or whether it is the outcomes it is assumed to produce, like less inequality, that are important. This is very important as if we do not know what it is that we are trying to achieve and what the principles are that drive this, then we lack purpose and direction.

Everybody seems to agree that First Past The Post is deeply flawed not least because it creates many cases, such as Labour voters like me in Richmond Park, where my vote does not count as my party has no realistic hope of ever winning the seat. The problem is what system to replace it with as every system has strengths and weaknesses, e.g. they may balance proportionality with local accountability. At times it felt like we were saying PR means PR and were scared to go into what PR really means when we know that is a bad approach from the Brexit shambles.

The mood in the meeting was mixed on whether Labour should commit to one form of PR before the next General Election or not. My view is that we should. We should have a clear idea of what system is best and try to get other parties to agree to this before the election so that it can be implemented afterwards having already achieved majority support from the electorate. I also think that to be vague on this issues opens Labour open to the suggestion that they are looking to change the voting system just to suit them, much as the Lib Dems (probably rightly) were blamed for supporting AV.

If PR is a principle that we, Labour, believe in then we should insist that it applies to every election, particularly local elections. Most, if not all, of the regional assembly elections already use some form of PR.

There is a lot more that Labour could, and should do, to reinforce democracy than just change the voting system. We should address issues like voter registration, party funding (particularly by corporates) and also when we vote, Thursday evening does not suit everybody. It is good that we have committed to reducing the voting age to 16 and we should do more things like that.

There was some discussion about the Lib Dems and whether they should be included as a progressive party, particularly when on the one chance they had they put the Conservatives in power. I think of Lib Dems as Tories but the meeting was split on that.

We only discussed different PR schemes in passing but I think that I hardened towards the idea of top-up lists where most MPs/Councillors/etc. are elected as they are now with a few additional people  then appointed from party lists to make the overall totals roughly proportional. This is not straightforward, none of the system are, as, for example, it would create two classes of representatives and those from the lists would be seen by some as getting "jobs for the boys".

It is good that people are talking seriously about improving our democracy but I would like those debates to be more clearly driven by principle than opportunity, to cover all aspects of democracy and to be more detailed.

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