May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011 | Commentary on Elections

Are We Voting for a Better Democracy or Simply Ignoring the Real Problems?

SINCE 1997, the changes have come so thick and fast that they amount to a revolution. Devolution for Scotland. An assembly for Wales. House of Lords reform. A mayor for London. The EU Constitution, which became the Lisbon Treaty when the EU, and Tony Blair, realised how much everyone hated it.

And then there are the voting systems. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the London Assembly use the additional member system. England, Scotland, and Wales use a party list system to choose MEPs. And Londoners have to grasp the complexities of the supplementary vote when electing a mayor.

It’s often said that London gets more than its fair share of the nation’s time and care. Frankly, I pity London. If the Alternative Vote replaces First Past The Post, Londoners will be using four different systems, all purporting to be proportional, to elect their representatives.

No one in London can possibly know how all these systems work, or what they are really voting for when they cast a ballot. In the name of democracy, the people have been deprived of their ability to understand how their representatives are chosen.

What good has it done? Is Britain better governed now than it was in 1997? Absolutely not. The Government is a bloated whale that consumes half the nation’s income, leaving Britain in one of the worst financial positions in the developed world.

None of the constitutional changes have done anything to address Britain’s economic problems, never mind the domestic Islamist threat or the social problems that stem from the breakdown of stable families.

Certainly, the Scots like their Parliament. But they would like it a lot less if English taxpayers stopped subsidising it. After all these reforms, is Westminster today closer to the people?

On the contrary, it’s further away and more centrally dominated than ever. Is it more democratic, more responsive to the will of the people? The expenses scandal suggests that MPs view themselves not as tribunes of the people, but as a privileged elite.

And yet the tinkering continues, as if one more change will do the trick. It will not. The more the traditional system changes, the less credibility its remnants will have. Trying to restore people’s confidence by making more changes is like trying to cure a drug addict by giving him a bigger hit of heroin. It only feeds the ever-more relentless pursuit of change for the sake of change.

Even its supporters acknowledge that the Alternative Vote is, in Nick Clegg’s words, “a miserable little compromise”. Adopting it will do nothing to staunch the demand for more tinkering. As soon as the next general election is over, the campaigning for a revision to the alternative vote will begin, as if yet another switch will bring about a paradise of perfect representation and restore everyone’s faith in the system.

But the point of the electoral system in Britain has never been to represent the people perfectly. The point of it has always been to form a government that commands the support of the Commons. The only system that genuinely allows everyone to express their own views is direct democracy: every man his own MP.

That’s not what’s on offer here. As long as Britain elects representatives, any electoral system will fail to represent all views or, from time to time, produce unclear results. To pretend changing the system will fix this problem is childish.

This is not the first time Britain has had this argument. In the late Victorian era, proportional representation’s supporters argued that too many voters had no real representation in the Commons.

A system that represented everyone in due proportion would be fairer, reduce the strength of the party machines, and lead to better government. Sound familiar?

The enthusiasts were gently rebuked by Sir Leslie Stephen – father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell – who pointed out that they were mistaking the waterwheel for the water. The campaigners thought it was the political system – the waterwheel – that produced the results they disliked.

But Stephen believed that the fault lay with the water, with the beliefs of the people who cast the votes. Changing the system to try to elect a certain kind of MP was pointless. If the British people genuinely wanted MPs who stood apart from the party machines, they would vote them into Parliament.

If they failed to do so, tinkering with the system would not change the beliefs of the people. If people wanted to vote for the bland, the mediocre, and the easily-regimented, no system could stop them.

The same is true today. The fault in Britain lies not in the system. It lies in the people who vote in it. The majority of the British people want more benefits than they are willing to pay for, so the state has run out of money. No one wants to be blown up by terrorists, but, for too many of the elite, Islamism is a natural response to the supposed prejudices of British society. Everyone pretends to want the virtues that stable family life brings, but the elite’s left-wing condemns anyone who defends family values as an intolerant bigot.

AV will do nothing to resolve these problems, which run far deeper than the number of marks the British people make on their ballot papers. At best, the alternative vote is a distraction. At worst, it will produce even more bland politicians who are eager to string the majority along with promises they cannot keep.

What Britain needs is not a new system. It is the courage to deal with the contradiction between what people want and what they can afford, between the values they say they support and the kind of politicians they vote for.

Relying on the Alternative Vote to address that contradiction is tinkering. It’s just another way of evading the problem.

Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Yorkshire Post