Who we vote for

One of the little understood issues with our present system – indeed with all Parliamentary systems (as opposed to Presidential systems) – is what we are actually voting for at a General Election.

We are voting for representatives not governments – despite what the media coverage says. From this flow a number of consequences and not a little confusion.Take the 1974 (February) Election.  This was held at a time of significant industrial unrest – the “Three Day Week” forced by power shortages made the 1978/79 “Winter of Discontent” look like a minor inconvenience. Edward Heath, the then Conservative Prime Minister (in the days when you could lead that party and be pro-Europe and still vaguely “One Nation”) went to the country with the question: “Who Runs Britain: the Government or the Unions?”

To judge by many commentators the electorate said to Ted Heath “Not you mate – sling your hook”. He tried to do a deal (“clinging to office”) with the Liberals (led by Jeremy Thorpe) and failed – not being willing to pay the price demanded by the Liberals (which included Electoral Reform). Harold Wilson, the Labour Leader then became Prime Minister with a minority Government. He then improved his situation in the October 1974 Election, eventually handing over to Jim Callaghan who then went on to lose the 1979 Election after the Winter of Discontent, when the people, a little more emphatically decided that it was better that Margaret Thatcher ran the country than the Unions.

But what did the electorate actually say in February 1974?

Labour Party        301 Seats   11,645,616 Votes (37.2%)
Conservative Party  297 Seats   11,872,180 Votes (37.9%)
Liberal Party        14 Seats    6,059,519 Votes (19.3%)

With a larger share of the vote than Wilson, this was not quite the “not you mate – sling your hook” result portrayed by so many. in fact the solution that Edward Heath sought (Con-Lib Coalition) would have commanded majority support.

Arguably the “result” of this election put off Trade Union Reform for 5 years and further emboldened the Trade Unions to “take on the Government” (even a Labour one). Then we got Thatcher. Her reforms were probably far harsher than Ted Heath’s would have been. Others can argue whether or not this was for the best. I would simply note that Thatcher’s reforms probably lead to the industrial decimation of large parts of the country, a substantial divide between North and South and between the “haves” and the “have nots”. They also lead to Big Bang and the changes in the financial sector, and the culture of greed – which combined with laissez-faire regulation – possibly lead to our current economic difficulties. It also led to a substantial change in our attitude to Europe and arguably a level of disengagement that saw the EU develop away from us.

There are a lot of “probables”, “possiblies” and “may-bes” in the above and others will argue that at least some of this had to happen because of the unstoppable forces of Globalisation that seem to run this world. None-the-less, it is worth pondering the effect of the popular vote being over-ridden by the result in terms of seats in the House of Commons. What if we had had the Heath reforms rather than the Thatcher reforms? No Thatcher Prime Ministership, No SDP (and No Lib Dems), a different Europe?

Our current system of indirect democracy – whereby we elected representatives to form a parliament from which a government emerges means that the balance of opinion in the House of Commons will always trump the balance of opinion in the country. This is not necessarily a problem – and can have benefits – provided the gap between those two balances is not too great.

The current electoral system, which ensures that the “elected representatives” are those supported by (in most cases) the largest minority and that large numbers of voters feel they have no representative, does try to give an “emphatic” result in the House of Commons. However, this is at the price of a large gap between the balance of opinion in the House of Commons and the balance of opinion in the country.

On balance I favour indirect (parliamentary) democracy to direct (presidential) democracy. It is not as “binary” and does not concentrate power to the same extent and allows for more shades of opinion. But I believe that the balance of power in the House of Commons should be more representative of the range of opinions in the country.

Despite the fact that we have an indirect democracy, we still act as if we have a direct democracy. In the preceding paragraphs I have written of “Harold Wilson winning” or of people “voting for Edward Heath”. The only people who voted for Edward Heath were a few voters in Sidcup!

We pretend that at General Elections we are voting for a “Prime Minister” and the Leaders are projected through advertising even more than some of the policies that there parties are promoting. We now have “Leaders’ Debates” with opinion polls during the debates tracking the popularity of the (major) party leaders. Yet in reality we are usually asked to vote for relative unknowns selected for us by the party selection committees – and in most seats we know the result before a single vote is cast.

Because we think that we are voting for Prime Ministers many are outraged by the mere idea of coalitions – where the largest minority is denied absolute power. I find the idea that “the winner should win” even if the “winning party” has only 37% of the vote – and possibly fewer votes than the main “opposition party” – very strange. But it is a consequence of “Presidential” thinking.

In a Parliamentary System, an election should be seen as some form of massive melting pot of ideas with lots of discussion resulting in the election of a set of representatives who are broadly representative of most shades of opinion in the country (and within parties). If we the electorate have succeeded in electing a truly representative body, we should then be content to see it determine the Government (that can command sufficient support in Parliament) and the Programme of that Government. That is the principle behind indirect democracy and I fear that consent for this approach is breaking down and fuelling a more divisive approach to Government.

This Government (and the last) have flirted with changing to a direct model of democracy. Labour have tried to foist directly elected mayors on various communities with varying success. The Conservatives have foisted directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners on us in the name of democratic accountability. Apparently “anonymous” police committees were not good enough. (Yet a relatively anonymous House of Commons select committee on Home Affairs is good enough to hold our “unelected” Home Secretary to account.) Might we see more direct democracy, possibly along American lines? I am not saying we should be electing the town dog-catcher, but how about directly electing the chair of Ofsted? (Just a thought – too far!)

Good Local Authorities often manage to run on a relatively consensual model either due to their being “No Overall Control” or because the Majority Party (in terms of council seats if not of votes) recognise that they should not run their council dogmatically. Police Authorities were designed to be widely representative of the communities being policed, acknowledging the concept of “policing by consent” and maintaining the “Queen’s Peace” (i.e. peace for all). Concentrating power in the hands of a single person (Mayor or PCC) endangers this consensus and consent. Because of where I live, my police force will, for as long as I can see, be run by a Labour PCC (dependent for re-selection – never mind re-election – on maintaining support from the largest political group in my force area). Fortunately I do not have a Mayor and our Labour Council does acknowledge and seek to accommodate some opposition views.

Compare this with the position in the USA where the President, whilst not having all power, still (tries to) set the agenda. Often all this power is vested in a single individual based on very close electoral results (in terms of popular vote rather than electoral college votes). Often Presidents are detested by their opponents with a level of venom that makes Thatcher – Foot look like a playground spat. I am glad that I do not live under such a system.

But, if we are to live under a Parliamentary indirect system of democracy, that system must ensure that the elected representatives (as a Parliament) are more representative of the people who consent to be governed by them. Then if we accept that Parliament is representative, we should consent to being governed by them.

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