Start Wearing Purple: the road to Voting Reform
I originally started writing, and abandoned, a blog post by a similar name on about 8th May 2010. That its taken this long to actually sit down and write about the shock-arrival of a new movement on the erstwhile-boring topic of electoral reform (now called voting reform, cause at least people might know what that is!). Time has moved on since the heady days when Take Back Parliament were visible in half of all outside shots on TV.
The sudden rise in debate about Voting Reform has mostly subsided, though I suspect its more of a natural lull as things like the shock-budget get more attention for the moment; I don’t believe for one minute that people are any less in favour of some degree of voting reform than they were a month or more ago. Its certainly educated a lot of people: not everyone knows their Single Transferable Vote from their AV+, but most people get the idea that some kind of preference system can at least smooth out some of the problems associated with the current system.
I suppose I should explain my own position on Voting Reform, but first I want to pass some comment on the emergence of the Purple Movement for Voting Reform here in the UK. Purple has been chosen as the colour of numerous suffrage movements, mostly notably the Women’s Suffrage movement. The events that unfolded after the election result was clear brought together a wide variety of supporters for voting reform under a simple-to-adopt branding of sorts.
It should be noted that the coalition organisation behind all the protests was actually supposedly winding down as the election had now passed. So to suddenly seize the moment, perpetuating the campaign not for the sake of perpetuation but because a political opportunity existed, was a very smart move. That first demonstration, which was rapidly moved to the building where Clegg happened to be, and which saw Nick Clegg give a speech on a megaphone, saw the BBC deciding rolling coverage of a protest was the ideal backdrop to an otherwise absent news story. After all, despite the high political drama, there wasn’t actually anything else to report, and Take Back Parliament filled that gap incredibly well.
In York, our protest of over 150 people on Saturday 15th May saw a very successful march through town, and a rally with some big name speakers, including an MP, a councillor and a baroness, plus an outspoken Lib Dem who had just lost to one of his fellow speakers. It was an immense pleasure to work with the students who put the event together at such short notice. Definitely one I’ll remember.
I have, however, found myself diverging from some of the most common line taken on the issue. I support voting reform because it is preposterous that the overall results nationwide lead to such a disproportionate array of seats: it offends my sense of fairness. I also dislike the way this current system penalises people for voting anyone other than the leading two parties in their constituency. That doesn’t seem very democratic.
But where I disagree is this belief that proportional representation will create an atmosphere of consensus in parliament. We should perhaps take the American example: many there lament the passing of the spirit of bi-partisanship that apparently used to exist, but as has been noted elsewhere, this bi-partisanship ended during precisely the time when women and blacks were becoming more represented; to put it another way, when we end the monopoly of privileged white men negotiating on everyone’s behalf, we see better outcomes.
I personally prefer the AV+ system, in which electors first must preference their local constituency candidates, then select a party to receive a “top-up”. Every party gives in a list, usually containing the same people standing constituencies, but ordered as the party sees fit (anyone elected at constituency level is ignored when top-up seats are distributed).
What I want to see is a system that ensure that when lots of people across the country are voting for a marginal party, it has a chance of getting a seat so that it can have an advocate on the inside, and so bigger parties have to compete harder for votes. But adversarial politics is avoided in only two ways: by having a dictatorship, or by allowing the privileged free reign with which to run the country in their interests.
I advocate the use of consensus in social movements because I want a community of people who respect each other taking action together. There is a commonly identified goal for the activist grouping; not so for the bankers and workers, who’s motives and values are contradictory and where, if the majority will does not prevail, the system will be run to the advantage of those with the privilege of controlling the wealth at the outset. This idea of the state running by some sort of consensus seems very much at odds with the need to confront injustice. Voting Reform could create the climate for more confrontation of injustice, seeing more Caroline Lucas’s standing up for community values in parliament. Perhaps we might see a progressive coalition challenging the minority who vote Conservative or UKIP? It is the unfairness, not the vision, that Voting Reform should be targeting.