The Guest Blog

Richard Wilson argues that if we are not careful electoral reform could be a distraction from the new politics we need.

I never marched against the Iraq war. I can’t remember why; I was probably ‘busy’. I did, though, construct quite an elaborate intellectual defense. An argument which hinged largely on a critique of our democratic system, and that whoever was in power—Tories or Labour— we would go to war anyway. My point being that until we changed our political system, we would continue having bad decisions and bad government. I distinctly remember arguing, “that I would march for proportional representation any day”. On Saturday, 8th May, that day came, and I didn’t march. I was busy. Again.

For most people this is totally excusable. They have many more important weekend commitments than a rally for democratic reform, especially on the coldest Saturday in May that I can remember. I, however, have spent most of the last five years heading up a think-tank for democratic reform. It’s my job. Plus, I live down the road. I don’t have an excuse.

But I do have a genuine dilemma. I believe proportional representation (PR) is fairer than first past the post. I believe we need constitutional change. My heart warms when I listen to Clegg’s impassioned speeches for electoral reform. Yet I am no longer convinced that PR is going to give us the new politics and better government we need. Will it help us tackle climate change, kick start the economy and support community cohesion? I’m not so sure.

The Electoral Reform Society was established in 1884 to campaign for PR. Back then it was radical, women didn’t even have the vote. But now things have moved well beyond discussions of different PR systems. Changing the voting system is not on its own going to re-engage people in politics. Just look at the European elections for evidence of that. There is now a real danger that after a century of campaigning for PR, we assume that it alone can usher in a new politics. It won’t. Instead we need to look at governance arrangements and social trends as a whole and design something fit for purpose. Michael Portillo touched on this point, speaking on the BBC on Saturday suggesting that we should use social media to make steps ‘towards an Athenian approach’. Helping people get involved on a daily, not five yearly basis. I believe he is right. The Conservatives and Lib Dems are also right that we must give much more power to local government and free up individuals to be part of a ‘Big Society’. Although I imagine to do this, we’ll need similar investment as Labour allocated to ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Together We Can’. Society building don’t come cheap.

For any democratic reformer the most promising thing about the current situation is not that PR is ‘on the table’ but the fact that we have two very different parties prepared to talk seriously to one another about creating a partnership ‘to put Britain first’. This break from the usual corrosive tribalism that both bonds and breaks our politics is a hugely positive sign. To succeed in British politics today requires an aptitude or acceptance for tribalism which means only certain types of people become politicians. Women in particular dislike our ‘Punch & Judy’ politics. And to be fair to our battered politicians, it’s almost impossible to break out of the adversarial political mould due to the culture of our press. The media on all sides equate newsworthy with controversy and, therefore, focus on the differences between politicians rather than common ground, pumping the oxygen of publicity to those who are most controversial and most tribal. Partnership tends to be framed as weakness and tribalism as strength.

Consequently it takes brave and principled leaders to stand up to the third estate, which right now we seem to have across the major parties.

So as we start a week which may be a new dawn for our politics and government let’s not forget that a new politics requires genuine change on all sides, from the politicians, the media and from us, the people. PR may well be a vital component of the mix, but only if it reduces the tribalism of our politics and helps us to meet the challenges we face.


Richard Wilson is director of izwe and founder of Involve. @richardwi1on

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