Many people think that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system does not give us a representative Parliament, and are calling for proportional voting instead. But relatively few countries use proportional voting for their national legislature, and there does not seem to be a worldwide push for it. Why is there so much enthusiasm in Britain for this venture into the relative unknown? To find the answer one has to look not just at the electoral process but at other aspects of government, comparing Britain with other developed countries. ‘Benchmarking’ ourselves against other countries shows that proportional voting is a proposed solution to a British problem that other countries do not have. That problem is the total centralisation of government which has gradually overtaken Britain during the last quarter century and made our government a uniquely undemocratic and unresponsive elected body.
It began in the late 1980s when the government perceived that Trotskyist local authorities – specifically Liverpool’s ‘Militant’ wing of the Labour Party – were illegally using their local tax-setting powers in order to subvert central government policies. Instead of placing Liverpool in temporary ‘special measures’ (as was done with Rotherham very recently) the central government decided effectively to put all local authorities in special measures forever. Henceforth they would only have limited discretion over a very small part of taxation and spending. They wouldn’t be allowed to borrow, e.g. to build social housing, even when it would be profitable. Central government would make such investments if and when it saw fit. Local authorities now raise only around 20 per cent of their expenditure through Council Tax, which is no longer linked to regularly re-assessed property values so that Councils can’t increase the tax yield by improving selected parts of the neighbourhood. Central government began to specialise in grand reform plans and what Blair called ‘eye-catching initiatives’ which needed every drop of resource the country could muster.
As well as distancing decision-making power from the local knowledge required to make decisions, the dis-empowering of local government removed the ‘checks and balances’ which other countries prize. Later, plans to make the House of Lords (one of the remaining ‘checks and balances’) more democratic fell by the wayside and instead Parliament simply deprived it of power. We now have by universal cross-party agreement the most remote and centralised government in the developed world.
So the special problem with first-past-the-post in Britain is that the Prime Minister’s party gets total presidential power, whereas in other countries ‘subsidiarity’ applies – local politicians take decisions over things that local government does best. Even where local government is elected by a first-past-the-post system, some of the benefits of proportional voting are achieved. Eleven per cent of council seats in England, Wales, and Scotland are occupied by parties other than the five main or nationalist ones, compared to only three per cent in the House of Commons. And where local government has autonomy, local politicians of the main parties have a power base of their own and are not under the heel of their central party hierarchy.
Let me give you an example of party hierarchy overruling local democracy: there was a by-election in a London borough ward which was traditionally Conservative because the other parties (Labour, Lib Dem, Green) always split the anti-Conservative vote. Sensibly, the local Labour leader wanted to make a deal whereby Labour would not put up a candidate if one of the other candidates also withdrew, so they would be sure of defeating the Conservative. But Labour’s national party ordered him not to make the deal. To them, it was more important to ‘show the flag’ to boost Labour’s chances for the big prize – participation in central government. It would have been the same even if you swapped the names of the parties around. Local politicians in the UK are seen mainly as obedient servants of Whitehall and as aspirants for the real job of being an MP. That’s not the way it should be, and it wouldn’t be if local government had power again as it did in the periods of greatest social reform in modern Britain.
Adding the unusual practice of proportional voting to the wacky centralised, unchecked government of Britain might be a great idea, but its results are unpredictable. Why not give up our insular desire to ignore what the vast majority of democracies do, including the whole of the British Commonwealth, and what we did until the fear of a Trotskyist revolution panicked the party hierarchies into abandoning the most important part of democracy. Bring back local autonomy, funded by locally-controlled property tax. We know it works, and the structures and information technology to support it are still in place, just mothballed.
If we want to persuade leading parties to allow proportional voting they will resist much less when local autonomy – which is essential by any measure – is implemented. They will then have less to lose by giving up the ‘first-past-the-post’ system because it will no longer offer them the the democratic politicians’ dream of absolute presidential power.