Making government accountable to the people

How could we reform our democratic systems to prevent future abuses of power? It could be time for a shift to proportional representation.

We may have a narrow escape from a no-deal Brexit, although current prime minister Boris Johnson is still looking for ways to avoid applying to the EU for an extension of Article 50.

However, in light of the recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling, it is unlikely that he will overplay his hand so badly again. Parliament will probably be heartened by the Supreme Court decision to act more cohesively from now on to prevent this minority government from trying to crash us out with no deal, for which no one surely voted.

But we must focus on the need to prevent any similar misuse of power in future. We need to understand why, in the long period since Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, pro-Remain MPs have not asserted themselves effectively before. There are obvious flaws in our democratic system.

First of all, MPs can never be sufficiently accountable to their constituents under First Past the Post. Even in the unusually volatile political period in which we are living, most Parliamentary constituencies are safe seats. Having been elected, their MPs can expect to remain in Parliament as long as they wish, provided they do nothing outrageous.

However, the problem is wider still. First Past the Post enables one party to win total power with less than 40% of the national vote. This prize is incentivises MPs to be absurdly loyal to whichever leader they think can deliver their party electoral victory.

It was this above all which motivated the half of Labour MPs who voted for Tony Blair’s Iraq war, despite there being evidence that it was unjustified and likely to be disastrous.

It was the Conservatives’ desire to obtain total power, neutering the threat of UKIP, that led them foolishly to endorse a referendum changing the most vital aspects of all our country’s economic arrangements and laws on the basis of a majority of just one vote on just one day.

How could the 80% of MPs who voted for the referendum law have thoughtlessly overlooked the fact that such a referendum could have had a different result just a couple of weeks earlier or later?

Too easy to just follow the party line
In such decisions, First Past the Post effectively removes responsibility from individual MPs, because most people perceive them as acting in line with their party — almost as if they had no choice.

If we had an electoral system based on proportional representation, with multi-member constituencies where electors could rank candidates in order of priority, any MP who cast a vote for an unwise measure would see their thoughtlessness or bias highlighted at the next election, and party electors might decide that they preferred a different candidate.

A proportional electoral system would ensure that MPs thought through their options much more carefully. No party would control Parliament, so any measure put before Parliament would be likely to be amended in discussion. The days of MPs trooping through the lobby knowing the government’s measure was bound to pass so they wouldn’t need to pay attention to detail would be over.

A proportional representation system would also ensure that all major currents of opinion gained representation in parliament. In 1989, the British Green party got 14.5% in European Parliamentary elections, but it has only ever had one MP in Parliament. A rational electoral system would have probably have led to us having at least 10% of Green MPs for the last two decades.

The absurd situation in which the Tories have blocked onshore wind for many years, despite it being the cheapest form of electricity and supported by about three-quarters of the population, would not have come about.

Many people in the UK are wary of proportional systems; they worry it would allow extremists to gain representation in parliament. However, many countries have a system in which a party needs about five percent of the national vote in order to qualify for representation. This is wise.

But maybe we should not fear offensive views gaining representation in parliament. Those who feel their point of view is heard or represented where it matters might be less likely to turn to violence. Moreover, by having these views discussed within mainstream political discourse, people can hear convincing refutations to these views.

First Past the Post has fostered a situation in which the most dishonest and ill-qualified prime minister for decades believes he can win an election — partly due to a split opposition vote. Labour should combine with the other opposition parties to achieve a fair electoral system, where power cannot be exploited by one party backed by a minority of citizens.

Tim Root is co-ordinator of Muswell Hill & Hornsey Friends of the Earth. His work on climate campaigns has previously been published by the Ecologist and other magazines.

5 Responses to “Making government accountable to the people”

  1. Patrick Newman

    People supporting Labour may feel more inclined to PR if it was not for the capacity of Lib Dems to be prepared to sleep around, politically speaking. It will take a long time for the five years supporting the most Right-wing Tory government since WWII to be forgiven.

  2. Tom Sacold

    PR will result in Labour never winning an overall majority.

    There is no possibility of real socialist reform under PR.

  3. Steven

    Labour could implement real socialist reform in Britain IF that was what the people wanted the only thing is though that under PR they would have to convince enough people to vote for it rather than having the profoundly undemocratic FPTP gift them an artificial majority by its failure to accurately translate real votes in real ballot boxes into seats.

    Although the Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System of PR isn’t as proportional as Germany’s excellent Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system it is still highly proportional and that didn’t prevent the SNP gaining an overall majority in 2011

    I would prefer Britain adopting Germany’s system of PR with ‘open’ regional lists instead of their ‘closed’ state ones than Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote (STV). As that farcical referendum on AV showed in 2011 preference voting/ranked ballot systems seem to be viewed by most Britons with some suspicion.

  4. Steven

    We could have Germany’s system but with ‘open’ lists and even design an inbuilt ‘kink’ to the system by not having Germany’s perfect 50% FPTP to 50% regional ‘top-up’ lists but a less proportional 55% FPTP/45% ‘top-up’ list split then a party could obtain an overall majority with less than 50% of the national vote. Surely though the days in Britain when a single party can obtain national single-party government with votes of 35% as Blair did in 2005 and Cameron did with 37% in 2015 must come to an end.

  5. Steven

    I think a decent and representative electoral system should perform so that one party has to have the backing of 44/45% plus of the national vote behind it before it can form a single-party government

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