Only electoral reform can rescue democracy from MPs

by Alex Hilton

The referendum debate is getting a little personal, with yes and no campaigners bickering and name calling. Which does Labour little good, because we’re the only party split on the issue. So I will write in the spirit of comradeship. No calling of names like “analogue” or “swivel eyed”. No abuse.

Except of MPs of course. They deserve everything they get.

Remember, that’s where this all came from, the expenses scandal. In the days of the Jenkins review, the electoral reform debate was entirely about fairness. And that didn’t get very far. But the expenses scandal highlighted the other really big problem of FPTP. That of accountability – and that’s an issue that isn’t going away.

MPs are desperately trying to forget the expenses scandal. They want you to believe – they want to believe themselves – that it was a few rotten apples who are now facing the courts or who have resigned in disgrace. But if the sum total of politicians who face trial reaches even twenty, that won’t include any of the MPs who stuck to the rules (that they made to suit themselves) in their over claiming – like the capital gains tax flippers. Nor any of those who weren’t greedy but who turned a blind eye to their colleagues’ behaviour. Which adds up to nearly all of those in Parliament at the time.

I do still have a lot of respect for some of those people, particularly those who achieved most and who represented people best. It’s just a lot less respect than it used to be.

But the expenses scandal was only an illustration of the culture of unaccountability that has suffused parliament and which remains there today. They didn’t think about their voters once a month when filling in their expenses forms. What evidence is there that they gave any more thought to their voters when legislating the rest of the time?

Politicians broadly despise voters. They exist on foundations of their own rightness and very few of them are secure enough to embrace dissent. So when they vote against the will of their voters, they can justify it through their own faith in the wrongness of their voters. Rarely, if ever, will a politician admit they voted for something they knew was wrong to get the whips off their back, or to keep alive the prospect of a promotion or because they had been threatened with membership of an interminable bill committee (check the voting records of the members of the Crossrail bill committee in the last parliament). You don’t hear when an MP sells their vote in return for a concession on another bill.

Occasionally, you might get a backbencher who will admit they voted the wrong way simply because they didn’t want to bring down their own party’s government. I’m not saying any of these things are outright wrong in themselves. Just that they are all accountabilities that trump an MP’s obligation to their voters and of which voters are rarely – if ever – aware. And so how can the voters hold their MPs to account for these decisions?

So: top-down accountability in politics far outweighs bottom-up accountability. The issue is whether this is a good or bad thing.

I hate myself for saying so, but it’s a question of hegemony. As described by Gramsci, it is an observed phenomenon of power dynamics. In a given system, the dominant force changes the norms so that the lesser forces start to believe in, and act to the benefit of, the dominant force even it that contradicts the lesser force’s interests.

I’m suggesting that the overwhelming top-down accountability in British politics has got to the point where elements within the system that really ought to oppose such elitism actively act to support and enhance the elite. The main one of interest to me is the Labour party.

Whenever a favoured candidate gets parachuted onto a shortlist for a seat, this is the grassroots being disenfranchised in favour of the elite. Whenever the NEC chooses a deliberately weak shortlist to give that favoured candidate a better shot, again the grassroots are being disenfranchised. Whenever an NEC member gives the favoured candidate the questions in advance of a shortlisting meeting… again. Whenever a favoured candidate is gifted a membership list… again. And it’s not just about candidate selections, our party’s policy-making processes are equally subverted.

It is at this point that someone will tell you that party members are strange and can’t be trusted. This might well be a backbench MP, perhaps someone who is affronted when a minister says backbench MPs are strange and can’t be trusted. While being a party member doesn’t generally add to the “normal” quotient for an individual, the overwhelming majority of members don’t go to meetings and don’t give up months of their lives to fight elections. And these are the members – the ones most like normal people – who are least likely to become MPs. So on what planet does lack of trust in the members become a justification for allowing subversion of democracy in our party in favour of an MP-dominated elite? Evidently on this planet.

This MP dominance has an amplifying effect. It forces other powerful factions, the unions for example, to angle their advantages and NEC supporters in order to get some of their people elected; and then there are other powerful players doing the same, like Lord Mandelson. It becomes a battle between the various powerful factions, all disenfranchising the grassroots and all justifying it as necessary and the right thing to do.

So because of an electoral system that provides only for top down accountability we have a British politics where the elite is serviced and enhanced by it’s constituent parts, including by the Labour party.

And the enemy in this equation is safe seats.

Do not listen to or believe any MP who refutes the safeness of seats. They may very well tell you that all their voters can wake up one morning and change their minds, but that just isn’t how it works. An FPTP supporter might pledge their soul on the very rare occasions when a safe majority is overturned unexpectedly, but even they would be furious if the party started strategising and spending its money as though there were no such thing as safe seats. And if there were no safe seats, then why would the elite spend so much of their efforts in getting favoured candidates parachuted into them?

In a given election, 400 seats are unlikely to change hands. That’s 400 out of 650 MPs who need to do very little to get re-elected. Eric Illsely got re-elected. And forget about the corrupt or the bad MPs, where there is a slim hope that an electorate might change its mind. What about the merely mediocre MPs? In 400 seats they can stay for a generation, with little or no accountability to their voters at all.

This is the source of that culture of unaccountability in which Parliament was and is steeped. It still is and I can prove it. What reform is the government proposing in response to the expenses scandal? A reduction in the number of MPs. So the voter, already getting little regard from the average MP, is going to have to share that MP with even more voters and have even less sway as an individual. Furthermore, there will be no proportionate reduction in the number of government payroll positions and so backbenchers, those who supposedly hold frontbenchers to account, will be even fewer in number. This is an example of the elite making changes to the system in order to enhance the power of the elite.

Another example is that of IPSA, the body that now oversees MPs expenses. MPs don’t like it and so within weeks, months at the most, parliamentary time may be provided to change the rules for the convenience of MPs. Compare that to any other, perhaps more worthy, campaign, many of which have been fighting for years to get parliamentary time, sometimes on issues that would save lives.

It is just a fact: however noble individual MPs may be, collectively they simply cannot be trusted to make decisions that affect their own interests, whether that be on their pay, expenses or the system of election that gives them their jobs and their job security. Their safe seats.

Put it another way. How often have you heard Labour MPs repeat the Blairite mantra that choice in public services drives up standards? Well isn’t democracy a public service? Don’t voters deserve some actual choice? Isn’t it more clear now than it has been since the time of the rotten boroughs that we need to drive up standards among our politicians?

So where does any MP get off pontificating about electoral systems? They are interested in the subject, sure, but they are also the principle beneficiaries of the status quo and ought to recuse themselves from the debate. Where do they get off telling me I need a referendum before they give me more power? Surely referendums are only necessary when they’re taking power away from me? And where do they get off telling me that I can only have the choice of FPTP or AV, the piss poor bastard son of FPTP?

Yes, I’ll vote for AV but don’t imagine it will have a measurable impact. Best estimates are that the 400 safe seats in parliament would become 320 under AV, but that some of those would be safer than they are now.

I like the idea of open primaries, so that voters could grab back a little of the power executed by the corrupt elites, but most of the power they would get would be at the expense of the local parties, the least corrupt and most normal people we have. Open primaries aren’t really affordable either at a scale where they would be effective.

So my preferred system would be to roll in the primary with polling day, which is effectively what STV does. And if we capped it at 3-member constituencies, it wouldn’t be mad-style proportionality like in Israel, and the constituencies would still be of a reasonably manageable size. Three times the size in fact, but you would have three MPs instead of one.

And there would be no more safe seats left in Britain. Any mediocre Labour MP could find him or herself overtaken by another Labour candidate. No more MPs hanging on for thirty years past their prime out of some sort of misplaced deference. And no more chasing the Daily Mail prospectus because everyone’s votes would count, not just the reactionary swing voters.

No more safe seats. Which is why they won’t even let us vote on it. But if we, the Labour party, don’t stand for power to the people, who the hell does? Are we really ready to accept that we have become the pigs in Animal Farm?

Alex Hilton is a former councillor and Parliamentary candidate and the original Labour blogger.

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12 Responses to “Only electoral reform can rescue democracy from MPs”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    I like this article a lot; I agree with your sentiments and your proposals for 3-member constituencies seem eminently workable. However, as you rightly say this is extremely unlikely to happen given that the vested interests of virtually all politicians appear to lie within their own narrow boundaries. One additional point that I think is worth raising is the lack of diversity among MPs and PPCs. Far too many of them hail from narrow political and media careers. This lack of diversity is damaging to all of politics but particularly to the Labour Party who need to connect with the people far more as a democratic socialist/social democratic party is reliant upon people having empathy for society and for the party. This phenomenom was displayed for all to see in the Labour leadership election. Not one candidate had worked outside politics or the media and even those who had worked in the media had a very short career. Perhaps it is this narrowness of culture that reinforces the corrupting atmosphere of power in Westminster and is manifested in a quite obvious detachment from the woman in the street.

  2. LondonStatto says:

    If you support STV, you need to vote No – a Yes vote kills true electoral reform for a generation. A No vote allows a further referendum in 10 years.

  3. alex hilton says:

    Robin, very kind of you to say so. if it’s impossible under the current paradigm, then all you have to do is pick a colour for the placards and we can have a revolution. I kind of like red myself. Because if you’re right, what does our democracy have to offer us?

    Londonstatto, it’s less clear than that. the incrementalists would say AV is a step in the right direction, but the vanguardists would say that AV is merely a ruse to fool people that a concession has been made.

    AV might kill true electoral reform for a generation but the generation you refer to is the remainder of my functional lifetime. If you’re right, then I won’t benefit by taking your advice. If you’re wrong then AV might be the stepping stone to something worthwhile. The simple maths says vote for it even if it is a bit shit.

    This won’t get me headlining a “Labour Yes” speaking tour btw.

    Frankly, i don’t have the energy or the stomach to take up arms, which kind of rules me out as a vanguardist.

  4. theProle says:

    “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” – P. J. O’Rourke

    That is the root problem, and I’m not sure how we thing STV would help with that.

    I’m also not sure what would stop the parties ensuring that their campaigns were focused behind only one or two of their three candidates, nor what would stop the existence of safe seats where all 3 MP’s were the same colour (Eric Illsely enjoyed something like 79% of the vote at one election).

    STV also strengthens the main parties further as it adds further barriers to smaller parties and independent candidates by requiring lists of 3 members to stand for election…

  5. Will says:


    that last point is not correct, STV is not like party list in that parties can stand as few candidates as they like, indeed the usual practice in places that use it is to stand one more candidate than they think can win, that way that don’t risk wasting campaign resources on a load of candidates if they think only one can win. And also if they do better than they expected they don’t end up limiting the number of seats they win.

  6. Baldric says:

    There is another reason to vote for the admittedly poor AV option.

    FPTP causes a lot of tactical voting, whether conscious or unconscious.

    Lots of left leaning voters would probably like to vote for a party somewhat more to the left of the current labour party, but daren’t because they fear it would split the left vote.

    Lots of right leaning voters would almost certainly like to vote UKIP but don’t, for the same reason.

    So they vote for a party they don’t believe in, or stay at home.

    Consequently, the public, the media and the Tory and Labour partied all have an inflated idea of their own support. This tends towards the arrogance and partisanship that we all detest so much.

    With AV, we would actually see the true support that these “minority” parties could command. I think it would frighten main stream politicians on both left and right, and would lead to more nuanced debate at all levels.

    I shall vote Yes to AV through gritted teeth, not because I think it is the right solution, but because I think it will alllow non-mainstream parties to gain legitimacy, coverage and support.

  7. Mark Austin says:

    It’s worth noting that AV is likely to be less friendly to women and minorities than FPTP. Parties, when selecting, will always have at the back of their minds that they may need to applealn to other voters for a majority. The tendency will be to play safe in candidate selection: white, male, middle aged, centre ground to maximise appeal for second votes.

    Another reason to vote No to AV – other than LondonStatto’s point.

  8. Chris says:

    @Mark Austen

    You seem to be suggestion that people, in general or a very large portion of them, are racist and sexist.

    The electorate aren’t generally or in large part racist or sexist, so your argument is not only wrong but insulting to the electorate and shows the condescention common amongst MPs who are oh so better and smarter than the hoi polloi whom they feed off.

    What is sexist and racist is promoting people to fulfill quotas, a candidate doesn’t become a good MP because of their sex or skin tone.

    It may be that labour “elites” actually think as you do; if that is so then, shame on them.

  9. alex hilton says:

    Will, you’re right about theProle’s interpretation. however, it’s all about the implementation. In 3-member STV I would like registered parties to be forced to have 3 candidates in order to be valid, with only independents allowed to be singletons. 3 candidates on the ballot wouldn’t force them to campaign for all three, but would still allow an upset if that’s what the public wanted.

    On Illesly, the most support he got was 67% in 1997 on a 60% turnout. If voters knew their votes really did count, you could imagine more people being turning up to vote. If it were a cluster of 3 similar seats, looking at the numbers you would expect it to be 2 safe Labour and one 3-way marginal between Lab-Con-Lib. But while two of the Labour candidates would be likely to be returned, they wouldn’t know which two, which would depend on the voter preferences.

    On the current system all three seats would be safe Labour for all three candidates.

    It kind of makes my accountability point.

    Mark Austin – that doesn’t sound like it’s backed up with any actual evidence. Not least when I worked for the party, I was told that research shows a minor electoral advantage for being a woman. The correct concern about AV is that it might lead to a more bland, middle of the road politics.

    Where we have absolutely clear evidence is that FPTP has delivered a massively white, male and relatively high class (not in a good way) Parliament in Britasin for ever. If that’s your main concern you should be casting around for anything other than FPTP.

    This goes back to my hegemony point. Because we have elite dominance, we have widespread subversion of internal party democracy. So you tell me how many BME or women candidates were ever parachuted into seats or given hand-ups on to shortlists?

    And if you think that does us no harm, look at our last leadership election. Balls and the Miliband brothers all parachuted into their seats. Some suggestion Burnham too – but at least it was his local seat. Abbott only on the shortlist because one of the white male parachutes embarrassed that the shortlist was only white male parachutes.

    Who would have been standing at those lecterns if we had a real, functioning democracy in the country and in the party?

  10. paul hill says:

    Dyed in the wool rural Tory here.

    This is one of the best articles on the mess our “elected” representatives have got us into that I’ve ever read

  11. Keith says:

    Well said Alex! But remember you will be hard pressed to find more of a top-down, centrist, control freak than Gordon Brown. Yet, we let this man become leader without even asking him to tell us what he stood for via a proper leadership election – not that he wanted one of course, and that is why we lost the last election so badly. How can we claim to be a truly democratic party when we allow this sort of elitism to take over our party?
    You talk about the MPs expenses scandal and I sympathise with some of those who are now in the dock but, isn’t this a sympton of the FTPT system where a disproportionate number of these MPs are Labour who are guaranteed jobs for life. I have been a member of the Labour party for over 35 years, but I can’t help thinking, from the events of our last few years of power, that some of our MPs beleive that they are ent

  12. Keith says:

    Well said Alex! But remember you will be hard pressed to find more of a top-down, centrist, control freak than Gordon Brown. Yet, we let this man become leader without even asking him to tell us what he stood for via a proper leadership election – not that he wanted one of course, and that is why we lost the last election so badly. How can we claim to be a truly democratic party when we allow this sort of elitism to take over our party?

    You talk about the MPs expenses scandal and I sympathise with some of those who are now in the dock but, isn’t this a sympton of the FTPT system where a disproportionate number of these MPs are Labour and are guaranteed jobs for life. I have been a member of the Labour party for over 35 years, but I can’t help thinking, from the events of our last few years of power, that some of our MPs began to beleive that they were entitled to special privileges because of their status.

    As an example, Gordon Brown was elected MP in may (8 months ago). Yet, he is said to have only attended parliament on three occasions since this time? He did not even attend either the Budget debate or the Public Spending Review in the Autumn of 2010. He frequently told us during his election campaign that he cared passionately about winning the argument with the Tories on public spending. Yet, he has not had a thing to say about it since despite drawing a full salary courtesy of the taxpayer. Brown and New Labour cabinet ministers were obsessed with performance targets in all sorts of public sector jobs, but not it seems when it applies to them. Why does Gordon think that the rest of us ordinary workers are expected to attend our workplace every day – yet he can choose to attend parliament once in a while even though that is the job that he is paid (by us taxpayers) to be doing? No wonder voters hold MPs in such low esteem.

    This is a bitter pill to swaller, especially when it happens to our tribe, and what particularly bothers me is that the sort of renewal which normally follows such a devastating defeat at the polls last year has not even began. We need a party review, not just of policy, but also procedures and conduct if we are to win back the voters trust in Labour again.

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