Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 27 February 2015

Why does our politics always reform itself the hard way?

We see it time and again.

In 2009 it was parliament's expenses system. MPs had been abusing it for years and it was clearly unfit for purpose and yet they kept on with it until suddenly The Telegraph had the goods and then all hell broke loose. It was the biggest political crisis we have seen this century. And it was largely avoidable if only parliament had cleaned house itself beforehand. Instead they waited, and waited, and hoped they could keep getting away with it until suddenly they couldn't. And massively, massively damaged their own reputations as a result of having been forced to fix it.

We are seeing a similar pattern play out again with outside interests for MPs. They have been carrying on for years and years, some MPs with two, three, four or more outside interests/jobs. At first there needed to be a register of interests. Then Cameron before the last election made a speech where he declared outside interests for MPs to be "the next scandal waiting to happen". Various of their number have been caught out over the years (e.g. Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers) and more recently Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw. We are seeing a slow attritional effect here but at some point this will all blow up. And MPs will be forced, probably to have no outside interests at all. The fact that this is likely the wrong solution and will discourage e.g. doctors and others who need to maintain professional skills whilst serving in parliament will be by the by. Because again MPs would have had the chance to clean house and will have refused until they were forced to so something. And instead of measured reform we will instead see a knee-jerk panicked response as MPs will then be hugely on the back foot.

It doesn't take a psephological genius to see where the next likely crisis of legitimacy for our ruling class will come from after this. We are about to head into a general election where it is fairly likely that UKIP could come third in the share of the vote (e.g. around 15%) and come sixth in number of seats (e.g. 0.5%). At the same time the SNP could come sixth in the vote but third in number of seats (get 3% of the vote and perhaps 7% of the seats). Not to mention how swathes of Green and other voters across the country will be disenfranchised. We may also see Labour winning most seats even though they have had fewer votes than the Tories*. Our First Past the Post system simply cannot cope with a 5 or 6 party system. But yet again we see a political class with its head in the sand. There is simply no appetite or momentum amongst MPs as a whole for any change to the electoral system in Westminster. Most MPs think it does a good (or at least good enough) job. They are wholly unprepared for the sort of convulsion and the potential constitutional crisis that it could provoke if the sort of grossly unfair results mentioned above in any way come to pass. Indeed only a few years ago the old school MPs in both the Conservative and Labour parties closed ranks to prevent a pretty minor change to the electoral system. This could have been an opportunity for a proper national debate about how we elect our representatives. Instead it descended into utter garbage about how soldiers would not get bullet-proof vests, babies would not get the life support machines they needed and how THE BNP WILL GET TO CHOOSE YOUR VOTE IF AV WINS.

It seems that our body politic is incapable of seeing what is just over the horizon. Maybe it's a function of the way so many of their number refuse to engage with "hypothetical questions" at least in public only eventually dealing with problems when they become critical. But this is a terrible way to deal with constitutional and electoral change. It's enforcing a sort of punctuated equilibrium** on our politics when what would be so much better is a more measured approach where problems are identified before they get too bad and are remedied in advance in a sensible, consensual way.

Instead we could well end up with a government elected with fewer votes than another party who is then in opposition (where the make up of the parliament is in some seats almost random where there were 4 or 5 contenders) with barely any legitimacy trying to resolve the crisis both of its own mandate and that of politics in general.

We are constantly told we have a mature democratic system.

Not from where I'm sitting we don't.

*I am well aware that both Labour and Tories have on occasion in previous post war elections got the most seats on fewer votes then their rivals and it did not cause the sort of convulsion I am talking about here. But there are so many more parties vying for seats now and with the 24 hour news cycle and social media a crisis of legitimacy narrative could and probably would take hold quite quickly if some of the more extreme possible scenarios were to happen. Farage for example would never be off the box or the wireless (rightly) complaining that he got around a sixth of the votes and barely any seats. And aside from that it's incredibly complacent and dangerous to just assume that the public will happily accept such an obviously broken system reflected in such a result.

**When of course we all know what would be better for our politics is a form of phyletic graduation.

1 comment:

Richard Gadsden said...

As I put it on twitter, the election result could look like this:

"The first shall be second and the second first, the third sixth, the fourth seventh, the fifth fourth, the sixth third and the seventh fifth", as Jesus didn't say.