Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Electoral System Major Cause of Brexit

A bold statement? Perhaps, but I think it is one that is well supported by what has happened to our politics over recent years, culminating in the rise of populism, post-truth politics and Brexit.

This post was party prompted by comments made recently on a Facebook group - I won't go into detail here, but essentially it revolved around the significance to the overall result of weak or non-existent local Remain campaigns during the referendum campaign. I think it goes much deeper than that - to see why we have to look at some of the areas where this happened, and where the Leave vote was strongest.

Many of these areas are characterised by having been electorally 'safe' for many years, so let us consider the effect that such a situation has on local politics. In effect, local politics in very safe seats is more or less dead. Where one party dominates, opposition becomes increasingly 'pointless' in the minds of the local electorate - the 'put up a donkey with the right coloured rosette and they will win' issue. On top of that, the dominant party (whichever dominant party it might be) becomes complacent.

This is significant for the connection between 'politics' and the people living in the constituency - the dominant party knows it doesn't need to waste time, effort or money in campaigning locally. They don't knock doors, or deliver leaflets, or talk to people on a regular basis, or even very much at election time, because they know they don't have to. They get their elected members in local papers (and because of the general political atmosphere that relationship can become somewhat incestuous, with the paper effectively supporting that dominant party), and they send out a generic Freepost leaflet during elections, and they know that that is more than enough for them to be returned once again with a sizeable majority. Why would they do more? They just don't need to.

The other parties in the area, on the other hand, find it extremely difficult to recruit members and activists locally because nobody can really see the point in trying to achieve the obviously blatantly impossible. They have almost no activists, almost no members, and therefore almost no money - they have no resources to effectively campaign across the whole constituency, and are forced to restrict activity to perhaps working in a few council wards.

To go off on a slight tangent here, for those who are less accustomed to dealing with the reality of local party politics, political parties really aren't the great big 'machines' that some people believe. They rely almost entirely on local people simply getting up and getting involved, and giving what little time and money they can to try to make things better in the way that they believe is right. They don't have huge pots of money, and they don't have huge armies of staff and volunteers - they are often no more than a handful of local activists swimming against the tide to get anything done at all. Different parties do things differently, of course, and some have considerably more money than others, but in the case of a 'safe' seat all but the dominant party are almost always just a hardy little band of well-meaning and very over-stretched activists trying to do whatever they can with nothing. Aside from a parliamentary by-election scenario, when things can be a bit different, no party HQ puts resources into such places, because they know it would be a waste - the dominant party doesn't need to, and nobody else will really gain anything. This is the reality that people need to be aware of.

The effect of this is that the people who live in such constituencies hear virtually nothing from their 'politicians', even at election time (all they will probably get then is one generic glossy leaflet, possibly only from the one dominant party). They might, if they are lucky, live in a more contested council ward, and so here something of very local issues with reference to the council, but that's about the best they can hope for. To anyone living in a marginal, or at least somewhat contested, seat, this situation might seem slightly alien, but across most areas of these 'safe' seats political parties aren't going to come knocking on your door, or delivering you leaflets, or calling you by phone. The dominant party usually doesn't bother, and nobody else has the resources to be able to. There is really no such thing as 'political campaigning' at all, and nobody really hears from their 'politicians' of any party. For many people, it is as if they don't exist at all (or not as 'real people', anyway - not as anything more than a far-off 'elite').

This is very, very serious for democracy itself, and I'm going to go so far as to say that it is a very large part of what is creating the 'disconnect' that many people now feel with 'remote' politicians. They have an MP who appears in the paper, but that's usually the limit of their connection with them, and that really isn't enough. You could, of course, say that sitting MPs in such places have a duty to get out there and talk to people, but the reality is that they generally don't, because they know they don't need to. Some are better than others, obviously, and most will turn up to local events where they think they can get their photo in the paper so that people are reminded of their existence, but the chances of them spending much of their time out on the doorstep are fairly slim. It should also be said that they do have a job to do, so can't personally become full time doorstep canvassers anyway.

There are a great many 'safe' seats across the UK, and the reality for most of them is that no 'politician' or political party is actually doing any campaigning at all (beyond those occasional council wards). Only one party has the capacity to do so effectively, and they know they don't need to, so nobody at all is doing it. From the point of view of a resident, unless they are themselves politically 'active' or have had to contact their MP for something, it means that politics effectively isn't happening for them. It is nothing to do with them - it is something that happens remotely on TV and in the papers, but engagement with it is really beyond their grasp. Politics is a remote system belong to other people far away, with no experience of the kind of issues that they experience on a daily basis.

There is the 'political disconnect' happening across whole swathes of the country, and that is something very easy for (especially unscrupulous) people to manipulate to their own advantage, if only they can get the right kind of populist, 'anti-Establishment' propaganda out there on their behalf (and there are media outlets falling over themselves to do exactly that, of course). It's very easy to talk about 'metropolitan elites', for example, to people who already feel that politics is entirely remote from them, and who only see 'politicians' as remote party leaderships in London.

To return to the original point, it does also mean that there is no organisation locally set up and able to campaign when something 'political' but not about elections to the constituency, comes along like a referendum on membership of the EU. There's nobody to run a 'Remain' campaign or a 'Leave' campaign locally - there are pockets of council wards where someone might be able to deliver some leaflets, and maybe the odd enthusiast who will try to do a little more where they can, but there's no campaigning organisation set up on the ground and ready to run something across the area (and no resources to pay for such a campaign anyway). That is important to understand - it's not just that there was often no effective 'Remain' campaign locally, but that there was no local 'Leave' campaign either. That left 'leave' with the massive advantage of having nationally painted themselves as 'anti-Establishment' - they had created an impression of being the ones who were going to sort out that 'disconnect' and 'make the politicians listen to the people'. They were the side of 'stick it to the man', and that was always going to be the winning strategy in areas where local politics was already dead, and where people already felt 'politics' to be something far removed from themselves.

So how do we solve this? Well by now I hope that the answer is fairly obvious - we cannot sustain democracy on a platform where politics is something that is seen as a far-off issue for a large section of the population. We simply cannot go on with this situation of 'safe seats' where there is no local campaigning and no local connection between 'politics' and people. We can't carry one with having a system of elections to parliament where many, if not most, of them are almost entirely uncontested, with one party being so dominant that it doesn't have to work and everybody else so depleted by public despondency that they are unable to. It's unsustainable, it's damaging democracy, and it's damaging the country and the lives of its people.

The problem is predominantly one of the electoral system - it is an effect of 'First Part The Post'. If you change the system to an effective one of Proportional Representation, it ceases to be anything like the same problem - then every constituency will have contested seats within it, and everyone can see that that is the case. Parties need to work, no matter how dominant they are locally, to maximise their own number of seats, and other parties are able to develop as people begin to see that there are seats available for them to win if try. It's a complete game-changer in terms of the necessity for local campaigning in every corner of the country, and by every party, and a complete game-changer in terms of the direct contact and connection between people and 'politics' on a regular, local basis.

Not only is 'First Past The Post' incredibly unfair in terms of making every vote mean something and creating results that reflect the opinions expressed via the ballot box, it is destroying the entire fabric of our democracy. It is that which has brought about the disconnect that has been exploited by the populists, and it is that which has prevented their claims from being effectively countered 'on the ground' in many places. It is that system that has brought us the conditions that allowed the Brexit vote to go the way that it did, particularly in so many of the worst affected areas.

To finish, I would say two things to anyone reading this who is worried by that political disconnect, or by Brexit, or both, whatever your political opinions:

1. Support the various campaigns to reform our electoral system, get rid of First Past The Post, and replace it with a system where every vote counts in every constituency. Don't forget, the current system massively favours those two larger parties with their 'traditional heartlands' of 'safe' seats, so it is not in their interests to want to change it. They will need to be pushed, and pushed hard to the point where they can no longer resist. That can only happen through people signing up to support change.

2. Pick a side. Pick the party that most seems to reflect your views (Note: no party will reflect all of your views - they are always a somewhat broad church by necessity, and no member will ever agree with every word of every policy). Pick a party and join it. Get involved locally in your own area, even if it seems 'hopeless' at first. Nobody else can make change happen, and no political party can solve this problem on its own - it relies on people like you deciding to get up and do things. Sitting on the fence and waiting for politics to come to you makes you, to put it bluntly, part of the problem. Become part of the solution instead.

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