When the general election was imminent last year I had a nose around the alternative attractions on offer to see if there was a party on the edge of mainline politics that appeared to have merit and which might seduce me into parting company with my important vote. It turned out that there was little choice unless one felt inspired or obliged on principle to support a marginal idea from a marginal group. And marginal they were, with policies that ranged from pensioner’s rights or the legalisation of marijuana to the eradication of socialism. If you’re interested, you can read it here. My reasons for exploring political new ground had a lot to do with my disgust at the collective behaviour of many of our elected public servants who believed that, once in Westminster, they were above the law and had to do little more than be photographed opening fetes or awarding Women’s Institute prizes. Despite my imploring [and boring] everyone I met in the pub, the market or on the street on a Sunday morning that they vote for an alternative my incumbent Member was returned. Amazingly, he managed it with a slightly increased majority, which I couldn’t understand at all given that he had used a huge amount of his parliamentary expenses to landscape his garden. That should have been enough to have him dragged out of town behind a buckboard but all I could do was try to vote the bugger out. Regrettably, there was no viable alternative and a significant number of my fellow constituents clearly felt the same way; so I guess he’ll have seen that as a mandate to carry on landscaping. The point is, my vote was wasted and I knew it was when I cast it. My constituency, like many in the country, is a ‘safe seat’ and our voting system only requires the candidate to get the highest number of votes, not a majority, to win. Had that not been the case perhaps more people would have voted against the expected victor and he may now be on unemployment benefit. Actually, somewhere around 71% of all votes cast in the 2010 election disappeared down the same plughole according to the Institute for Public Policy Research [ippr]. That’s 21 million or so across the country. Now we’re nearly a year down the road, the coalition is deeply into its juggling act of fulfilling election promises that can’t be fulfilled, public institutions say they are about to collapse and the proletariat is on the streets. Frustrating, eh?
None of this should come as a surprise in a system that meant me and 20,999,999 other people might as well have been line dancing as queuing at the local polling station last May. We trust politicians less and less and they grow more complacent. They are rarely as open, earnest or honest as they tell us they are and, after all, the quality of their political footwork is measured by the success of the inevitable compromise.
I have a lot of time for Nick Clegg and I share his pain. He clearly understands the need for compromise and, as an honest bloke with a fair measure of political integrity, he seems to strive to acknowledge other points of view. That was why he was so successful in the televised debates prior to the election last year. Unfortunately, he probably didn’t foresee any real possibility of being in government – let alone being deputy Prime Minister – or he might have been more circumspect about what he promised. He now finds himself in the most unenviable of positions by being a government minister on the one hand and a Liberal Democrat on the other; pragmatism versus idealism. A perpetual and, for the foreseeable future, hopeless state of compromise. This means that his every move is seized upon as either demonstrating a lack of credibility through supplicating to the Conservative majority or a betrayal of Liberal Democratic principles. Well, life in government is tough and sometimes you just can’t win. So you have to compromise.
But Nick Clegg’s best compromise yet might just be the start of something that improves on the nonsense we had last year. The Liberal Democrats declared in their manifesto that they would fight for proportional representation [PR]. They haven’t got that but, on 5 May, we are invited to vote in a referendum on changing the current voting system to alternative vote [AV]. No, it’s not what the Liberal Democrats really want [nor the ‘safe seat’ guys, either, for that matter] and not what Clegg is charged to deliver but, in pragmatic terms, it’s an acceptable compromise and it may just be the first step on the way to PR. So now I find myself with the opportunity – at last – of avoiding my vote being wasted while helping to impose a degree of accountability on the Member we send to Westminster.
So I’ll vote for a ‘yes’ and – to the other 20 million plus voters out there whose votes had less effect than those cast for American Idol – I advocate support for this first, small change to the current ‘first past the post’ voting system, which disenfranchises the majority of us and allows complacent, self-serving and frequently pompous individuals to cruise the gravy train to Westminster. AV is certainly not perfect and perhaps it will be uncomfortable for politicians who worry more about their careers than the interests of the people they are supposed to represent. A move to AV will be a first step towards changing that.