The British parliament has only rarely reflected opinion in the country, as it should do ideally, as a supposedly democratic body. Before 1928 this was mainly because the House of Commons deliberately excluded huge swathes of Britain’s population: most of the working classes in the 19th century, women before 1918, and women on the same terms as men until 1928. Now that has been corrected, with only a few small minorities still formally disfranchised: criminals, the certified insane, peers of the realm (who of course have their own ‘House’), and those who haven’t bothered to register.
Latterly, however, its unrepresentative nature can be traced to to the astonishing vagaries of the British ‘first past the post’ electoral system, against which I’ve inveighed before: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/. I dealt with one of the (genuine) merits of this system there: local accountability. But another advantage is often said to be that it ensures ‘strong’ government. By that is meant single-party government, even if that party gathers only 30-40 per cent of the votes. Up to now people have seemed to accept this, having got used to the rules of what for most of them is only a game, and being the particular beneficiaries of it if they are Conservatives or Labour, or, before the 1920s, Liberals. Only ‘losers’ whinge. You knew the rules; it’s hardly cricket to complain. And proportional representation, they say, only creates insecurity and therefore national ‘weakness’.
Well, having lived in proportionally-represented Sweden for the past twenty years, I find it hard to see that. Coalition governments have been able to work pretty well there. In addition, voter participation in Swedish elections is far higher than in Britain, which must be one measure of true ‘democracy’. And of course, electors are more likely to find a party they agree with, or to be able to form one, if there is a variety of them to choose from with realistic prospects of at least sharing power, under a system where votes for minor parties, even before they become major parties, are not necessarily ‘wasted’.
It would be good if a popular movement could be whipped up in favour of a more clearly democratic electoral system along these lines. (I’ve already explained, in that earlier post, how local accountability could still be built in.) Of course it won’t happen, without some kind of existential crisis intervening in the meantime. People here aren’t interested in democracy; the fact that our present version of it is so devalued – crooked MPs, and so on – is one reason for this. And ‘first past the post’ is too valuable an asset for the major parties, and for those who can manipulate the system, to want to lose hold of it. Maybe the present splits in both the Labour and the Conservative parties might bring people around to the idea that there are fairer ways of getting governments that reflect their wishes. Or the difficulties we are likely to experience with Brexit might stir us up. But don’t bet on it.
Moving on to the present-day situation, it seems obvious that our present government fails in this respect. We know that most of the electorate doesn’t positively share the present Conservative government’s view of things, because 75% didn’t vote for it. Moreover, when people were given a rare chance to exercise their votes in a more direct and effective way, in the EU referendum, the result reflected – in my view – more their general hostility to the government than their considered views of Europe itself. (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.)
My view now – though I ‘m sure I’ll be mocked for this – is that most Britons are essentially socialists, or at least socialist-ish, underneath: co-operative, communitarian, fair-minded, decent people. Brexit obscured this, by highlighting its leaders’ – especially Farage’s – right-wing racism; but I really don’t believe that this applied to a large number of their followers. On the contrary, they were mainly fuelled by a vague sense of hostility to the metropolitan ‘Establishment’, and resentment that the way the British economy has been going in recent years had left them far behind. Trump’s supporters in the USA are the same. In both cases immigrants were more tangible and visible scapegoats for this than – in Britain’s case – the vicious economic policies of Cameron and Osborne, and the great Global forces that lay behind them. It was a matter of ‘false consciousness’, as Marx put it, though it sounds patronising to say it.
Still, if only they could come to see their true interests, and their true enemy, the Labour party could surely harness many of the Ukip voters to its cause. A Corbyn victory in the leadership election, and his rebel MPs’ willing acceptance of that, would be the first stage. Labour may want to make some adjustments to its policies with regard to immigration: maybe excluding some immigrants – there is after all no principled or socialist reason for allowing unrestricted entry into any society: that’s a ‘free market’ thing’; educating the ones who enter, if necessary, and directing them to where they’re needed; strictly preventing their exploitation as cheap labour (Sweden, incidentally, does most of these things); somehow (I don’t know how) neutralising the Islamic terrorist threat, which is an understandable if not a good reason for popular anti-alienism; and doing more to advertise the positive sides of immigration, which are many. Together with Corbyn’s other social and economic policies, and his deliberate populism, that could be enough to draw large number of Ukip voters away from their increasingly tainted and ridiculed leadership, and leave their party with only its right-wing, racist rump.
All this, however, would be immensely aided if parliamentary politics were flexible enough to cope with such changes in allegiance more easily and immediately. That could only come about with some form of PR. Then Corbyn’s Labour party could shed its Blairite rump too, and along with it Labour’s long and damaging association with the despised ‘Establishment’, or ‘Westminster bubble’, making its numbers up with non-racist Ukippers, and perhaps – who knows? – some Scots and Welsh Nationalists, LibDems, and Greens. Even if not, the Greens in particular would undoubtedly boost their own vote, and could reach a position where a Centre-Left alliance, reflecting public opinion more accurately, could take them into government with Labour and other ‘progressives’. (That’s the position in Sweden, too.) That must be better than the situation as it is now, with the two main (English) parties standing monolithic and immoveable, and as a result riven by internal arguments over their respective ‘souls’. You couldn’t imagine that, or its being so damaging, in Sweden, where the soulful have other places to go.