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Electoral Reform

The Commons has a disproportionate number of privately educated white men - not exactly representative

There are many strange things about sitting on the green benches of the House of Commons – from the men in tights wielding silver-buckled swords (Sergeant at arms), to the fishing-net of tiny microphones dangling above your head. But the thing I never got used to was more prosaic yet profound: that the politicians don’t look like the society that puts them there. For a start four out of every five MPs are men. Of that, there are only two black women and not a single Asian woman amongst them. And since each party usually gets a number of MPs out of proportion to the votes they receive, our polity fails a basic test: it fails, in reality, to be a representative democracy. The result, massively compounded by the expenses scandal, is that voters now feel MPs are a breed apart, with little sense of how modern Britain lives. For many of the MPs I worked with, this perception is unfair, but it is contributing to the erosion of democratic legitimacy.

What are the prospects for change? At the next election we’re likely to see more ‘newbies’ than ever before. But research shows that the prospective candidates in winnable seats are cut from much the same cloth as their predecessors (Class of 2010 Madano Partnership).

Although only 8% of British adults have attended a private school, around a third of new MPs elected next year will be from private schools. Among Conservative MPs the figure will be closer to 50 per cent. And while the Tories have made a little progress in terms of selecting more women, they still make up just 44 of the 165 new Conservative candidates with a realistic chance of winning. Moreover, as they will mostly replace MPs from Labour (the party with the best record of electing women to parliament) any overall increase is likely to be negligible. At this pace, we will wait several decades before we approach gender parity in the Commons.

Just as depressing is the fact that in the coming general election, whole areas of the country will be entirely bypassed. Millions of voters will find that they are taken for granted or written off as living in an “unwinnable” area. The votes that “really matter” tend to be the more politically rootless swing voters in Middle England marginals, which reduces the electoral incentive of parties to prioritise disadvantaged groups. So when people say “there’s no point voting” this may be less political indifference, and more hard-headed realism.

The result is a generalised alienation towards mainstream democratic politics that extremist forces are quick to exploit. Opponents of changing the electoral system frequently point to the gains made by the far right British National Party (BNP) in Europe. The growth of the far right should be a matter of concern to everyone who wishes to live in a society governed by democratic values. Having received my fair share of death-threats from racist extremists, I’m well aware of how intimidating local far right gains can be. But at the same time, if the BNP make progress in conditions where people feel democracy is broken, is the solution to keep the same failing system in place? For voters in an area like Stoke’s Abbey Green ward, which is now exclusively represented by BNP councillors, (despite a majority of voters consistently preferring other parties) First Past the Post means that people have no other local representative to undertake casework. FPTP could yet play this out across a whole borough, handing exclusive control to a far-right party against the clear wishes of the majority.

The present system works for nobody except the rear-guard of mostly grey-suited men who are rewarded with a job for life. In some cases these men work extraordinarily hard to represent the whole constituency. And sometimes they do virtually nothing at all. But this isn’t the point. The point is that our electoral system of FPTP stifles pluralism and creates a monoculture. Some argue that this is a price worth paying in return for strong government. But times have changed. We no longer live in an age of deference and top-down interaction. In the 21st century strong government can only be built around active citizens who are valued partners not ballot-box fodder. We can’t continue with an electoral mechanism that systematically marginalises the majority of voters.

It is imperative that at the next election people are given a real chance to fix our broken politics. The Conservatives have already pledged their support for the status quo. Labour needs to lead the way by giving the public a chance to vote for a properly representative democracy, where parties are responsive to voters whatever their gender or background. And just as important, we need the people inside the Commons to look like the people outside the Commons. That really would be a strange sight indeed on those hallowed green benches. 

 Published in The New Statesman on 11 November 2009