THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Local politics is a dirty business

There is a problem with "first past the post" electoral systems like the UK's. Population changes and movements between constituencies can make election results unfair at the national level. At present, constituencies with populations varying from 108,804 to 21,789 get to choose one MP each. Some of us are therefore severely short-changed in terms of our representation.

Indeed most of us have no influence on the outcome of General Elections at all as we live in "safe" constituencies that never change hands. Only once in his life (the Brexit Referendum) did my father – living as he does in the one-party Labour Heartlands – ever have the satisfaction of voting for the winning side. He has made it all the way to his late seventies before casting a vote that made a difference and never expects that experience again.

We don't elect a government in Britain. We elect a local Member of Parliament and HM the Queen invites the leader of the largest of the resulting factions in Westminster to form one. Hence the confusion of the Eastern European gentleman in the next booth to me at the hairdressers recently who was complaining loudly about "undemocratic" Britain daring to choose a new Prime Minister without giving him the chance to vote. In the interests of preserving the calm of that masculine sanctuary, I refrained from offering him any critique of the workings of his home democracy. Nor did I observe that without the efforts of a British Prime Minister chosen by the Conservative Party he quite probably wouldn't have a home democracy at all.

Writing of the last General Election in 2015, the Electoral Reform Society said;
This was the most disproportionate result in British election history. Labour saw their vote share increase while their number of seats collapsed. The Conservatives won an overall majority on a minority of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly all their seats, despite winning 8% of the vote. The SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote share, but 95% of Scottish seats. 
The society might also have added that UKIP won just one seat, despite having 12.6% of the vote. It took millions of votes to get that one MP, versus the thirty-something thousand on average required to elect a Tory or Socialist. The Liberal Democrats' 8% of the vote at least got them eight seats. The society might also have added that many past Labour governments also had "an overall majority on a minority of the vote". It's just how the system works and, apart from some eccentrics, few voters are agitating to change it.
 
Electoral Reform would make a lot of sense, but it's not popular. We had a referendum on it and the reformers lost. Many Brits are comfortable with having a constituency MP (even one, like mine, who rudely disregards all contact from constituents who don't share her left-wing views). When it's working properly, our system feels rather like steering a tank but with the opportunity to hit the left or right track controls only once every five years. If the government veers too far left, we swing it right and vice versa. Over time, we hope, it will tend in the direction we favour. Given how little interest most of us take in politics, few find that too slight an input. If government played as small a part in our lives as I would wish, it would be perfectly adequate for me too.
 
"First past the post" is a high-maintenance system, requiring frequent boundary reviews to keep it operating reasonably fairly, but it avoids the stagnation and corruption of the "party list" system favoured in much of Continental Europe. For example during an election when I worked in Russia the top place on the Communist Party list was rumoured to have been sold for $1 million to a businessman who simply wanted the perks associated with membership of the Duma. More often though it results in the less brazen corruption associated with political stagnation as, for example, in Austria. The same people at the top of their party lists stay in power for decades, trading favours with each other and moving comfortably between top jobs. A shift in the popular vote simply takes a few people off the bottom of one list and adds a few to the other – typically juniors who won't hold office anyway. The whole thing is very cosy for the politicians and feels even less democratic than it is. An Austrian client told me years ago that – respectable businessman and free marketeer though he was – he had voted for the late Jörg Haider – a real political nasty – "just to shake things up". Haider as prototype Trump? There is nothing new under the Sun.
 
We learned during the last Coalition Government (the only one so far in my nearly sixty years) that the Brits aren't really comfortable with the visibly cynical bargaining that Continental-style politics involves. We would rather stick with our clumsily steered tank and have periodic opportunities to "kick the rascals out" than see our taxes and liberties thrown about as chips on the baize of a luxurious political casino. 
 
The necessary boundary changes to sort out the practical problem were vetoed by the LibDems in the last Coalition Government in revenge for the Conservatives allegedly welshing on the Coalition Agreement. The Conservative victory in 2015 should have been greater and would have been had the boundaries been fair. Unless they are redrawn soon, the next election will be fought in constituencies that are over 20 years out of date and the outcome will be so outrageously divorced from our desires as a nation as to risk undermining democracy itself.
 
The Boundary Commssion for England is "an independent and impartial advisory public body, which reviews the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies in England." It is currently consulting on proposed boundary changes to equalise constituencies and to implement the government's proposed reduction of MPs from 650 to 600. The two local MPs (both Labour) between whose revised constituencies the proposals would move me are bitching and moaning to local media that the proposals are "gerrymandering" because they will "favour" the Conservatives. Truth to tell, they are actually "un-gerrymandering". 
 
Those "honourable" ladies are speaking neither for their constituents present and future nor for democracy but for their own self-interest. Expect a lot more such selfishness and hypocrisy in the months to come. If you live in England, please take part in the Boundary Commission's consultation here
 
 

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