Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 25 October 2009

James Forsyth highights problem with our electoral system

John Pienaar's guest on his 5 Live political podcast this week was James Forsyth, the new political editor of The Spectator (it is still accessible here for a few days). The discussion was about BBC Question Time, Nick Griffin and the BNP and James made a number of what I thought were good points about the programme and how it played out.

What caught my ear most though was when he highlighted what he perceives as a major reason why the BNP has increased in popularity. It is a short section from about 9 minutes in for about 20 seconds:

A colleague of mine went out canvassing with them (the BNP) recently and he said it is amazing to talk to people on the doorsteps who are voting for the BNP and they are voting because they haven't seen a politician because they live in a seat that is so safe for the Labour Party that no-one's been there for 20 years. That's what we've got to, you know, politicians have to realise that they can't take votes for granted.

I suspect the point that James was trying to make here is of a one with lots of right-wing commentators and bloggers who are constantly trying to make the point that the BNP is growing due to Labour's failures. Of course what he has inadvertently highlighted is one of the huge problems with our current First Past the Post electoral system. In areas that are very safe Labour, or Conservative or any other party, there is no real incentive for politicians of either the incumbent party or realistically main opposition parties to focus their efforts there. This is not being defeatist, it is being realistic. Parties are bound to target their resources where they think they can make the most difference and under our current system that is in the marginal seats and wards. This produces situations where people are effectively disenfranchised.

The political voids that this then creates can be filled by parties like the BNP who can step in and as they are the only voice that is being heard make council gains before the Labour and other parties who have sluggish or non-existent local party infrastructure even know what has hit them.

So James highlights a very real problem but makes no attempt to define how to resolve it, just a plaintive cry that "politicians cannot take these votes for granted". The reality is that the current situation will perpetuate. The weakness is systemic and even if the bigger parties plug the voids in a few areas, the BNP can just move into other areas. The solution is to remove the safe seats and wards by reforming the electoral system to make every vote count.

James didn't say this though and from what I can tell The Spectator's editorial line does not favour electoral reform either. I would therefore be interested to hear what alternative practical steps he thinks can be taken to avoid from what I can tell is an inevitable consequence of our existing system.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Absolutely spot on Mark. The problem is that LibDems are between a rock and a hard place on this: they are right to make the connection between the electoral system and the general apathy and disconnect that characterises modern UK politics, but any attempt to link the two just comes across as the party trying to boost its own vested interests.

There are a significant number of Labour politicians who back electoral reform, and even UKIP representatives have been known to get behind it, but no Tories that I know of. This despite the fact that the current biases of the system favour Labour rather more than the Conservatives. In my view until a few in the Tory party can be convinced to come on board (and they surely can't all fail to recognise the inherent value in electoral reform) it's a non-starter. It needs to be truly cross-party or it's just not going to wash.