Time for a new electoral system?
Today we publish the latest Touchstone Extra report, “Getting it in Proportion?”. It asks whether we need a new electoral system for Westminster elections. You can click on the image to download a copy. It is designed to help implement the resolution carried at our 2009 Congress that called for a debate within the trade union movement about whether we should move to a more proportional system for electing the House of Commons. It does not come to any conclusion but describes different systems and assesses their strengths and weaknesses. The report does suggest four basic starting principles that should inform the debate:
- There is no perfectly democratic electoral system. We expect our democratic system to balance a number of different objectives that are not fully compatible with each other. No system can therefore meet them all, and any practical system is a result of compromises and choices between these objectives.
- Different countries and communities have different political cultures, history and institutions. These can dramatically change the context in which an electoral system operates and the demands made on it. What is appropriate for the USA’s two-party system may be quite wrong for countries with multi-party traditions or those making the transition from a non-democratic system without strong existing parties.
- Circumstances can change. People may decide that they now want the electoral system to reflect different priorities. The political system can evolve – for example a strong two-party system can break down if parties split or new parties gain support. Many supporters of reform would argue that the UK’s political landscape has changed markedly from the strong two-party politics of the years after the Second World War.
- A country’s electoral system will influence its politics. The way that parties and individual politicians behave will be influenced by the electoral system in which they seek to win power. What electoral system we have is therefore not some free-floating abstract debate, but can make a real difference to people’s lives.
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber says in his introduction:
The MPs expenses scandal, the declining turnout and the relatively small share of the popular vote required to form a government, while the vote for third and other parties rises, all point to something wrong with our democracy. We have an unelected second chamber. Our Parliament remains unrepresentative of the population particularly in regard to gender and ethnicity. Parties can become dependent on limited numbers of super-rich donors, who do not even have to be resident for tax purposes. The evidence suggests we need a major clean-up and reinvigoration of our politics. It is very unlikely that there is a single measure that can do this, and it will take action in a number of areas. Electoral reform may or may not be part of what is required, but unions – as the largest mass democratic organisations in our society – must make their contribution to analysing what is wrong and helping reinvigorate our political system. Unions have democracy built into our DNA; it is how we conduct our internal business. The basic justification for unions is that the power relationship between employer and employee is fundamentally one-sided, and that employees need to join together to restore some balance. But the same argument holds for wider society. Power and wealth become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands without countervailing pressures secured through democratic institutions, law and regulation, quality public services and a strong, vibrant civil society. None of those are possible without a democratic society. This is why it is right for unions to play a part in this important debate.
This blog will be one place where we hope that debate will develop. Check out the report and let us know what you think. The comments box is open.
Later today we expect to launch a web tool that will help people sort through the different options of the status-quo or various alternative systems. Watch this space!