Richard North, 03/12/2019  
 


No sooner have I pointed out some home truths about my own constituency, Bradford South, than the Guardian produces a piece which exactly describes the situation we're in.

The headline (pictured) tells us that 14 million UK voters live in areas held by the same party since the second world war. That applies in spades to Bradford South and its 67,751 voters, which has been held by Labour since 1945 and since 1924, with a short break when the Liberals took the seat.

The certainty with which the seat returns a Labour MP makes a mockery of the democratic process. Those voters in this coming election who would vote for another party are, on the face of it, wasting their time. The incumbent, Judith Cummins, looks certain to get back in.

It is that situation, where even the average seat had not changed hands for 42 years, that has the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) say that the electoral system is "broken".

The ERS study found that 98 Labour seats have been in the party's hands since the war, 37 percent of their 2017 total, with 94 Conservative seats in the same situation, 30 percent of the constituencies they won at the last election, affecting 13.7 million potential voters overall.

The organisation, though, puts the problem down to the inflexibility of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, where single MPs are picked per constituency on a non-proportional basis. At the 2017 election, only 70 seats, or 11 percent of the total, went to a different party, with this figure in gradual decline. According to a YouGov seat-by-seat projection for the 12 December, only 58 seats are due to change hands.

Thus, of 650 Westminster seats supposedly up for grabs, the actual election will turn on less than ten percent of the seats, while the rest of us are consigned to the status of impotent spectators, with absolutely no influence on the eventual outcome. Whatever this system is, it isn't democracy. Yet, despite the view of the ERS, I don't accept that the FPTP system is the issue. For sure, if we had some form of proportional representation, some of the minority parties might get some seats, and there might be more contenders, but it is difficult to see how you can keep the area-based constituency system, each with their own single representatives, and have proportional representation.

Most forms of proportional representation require multiple-member voting districts (sometimes called "super-districts"), and the types of proportional representation which have the highest levels of proportionality tend to include districts with large numbers of seats. The way the European elections work is a good guide.

For my money, the real problem for the lack of change in the seats is the party system, where the finite resources of the parties only allow them to fight a limited number of seats in any one election. Thus, as we're seeing now with the battle centred on just over 50 seats, the rest of us are left to rot.

Oddly enough, although Bradford South has been solid Labour since 1945, it nearly turned in 1983 when the Thatcherite Tories cut the incumbent's majority of 4,318 in 1979 to a mere 110 votes.

It nearly did it again in 1987 when Labour could only manage a majority of 309, with the Tories and Labour neck and neck. I remember those days well, when there was a real buzz in the air, politics all of a sudden became interesting and we were all hanging on when the results came out to see who had won.

The moment passed though, and by 1992, with Major as prime minister, we were back to the status quo, with the Labour incumbent gaining a majority of 4,902. From that day to this, the Tories have never come close to taking the seat, with Judith Cummins fighting to protect her 6,700 majority.

Despite that, Electoral Calculus is predicting that this time round, the seat could be a Conservative gain, holding a majority of just over a thousand. This is based on the fact that we delivered a 63.56 percent majority for "leave" in the EU referendum.

Personally, I think the prediction is wrong. Although we had a clear majority in the referendum, turnout was relatively low, while the ward with the largest Moslem community (Great Horton) voted decisively for "remain".

Generally, the Moslem communities tend to vote Labour as a block, and they tend hold the balance of power in the constituency, with about 12 percent of the total vote in what is otherwise a predominantly white, working class area.

But the real give-away is that the Tories are not even trying to win the seat. They've parachuted in the son of a millionaire Indian property developer, a man who has no economic ties with the constituency, doesn't live in the area and has not even bothered to campaign. So far, in the entire period, we've had one leaflet and an electoral address from Labour, and that's it. None of the other parties have even leafleted us.

In the district, you would be hard-put to see any posters or billboards and the last time the local paper – which serves four constituencies – mentioned the election was on 22 November. The Tory candidate got two lines and has otherwise been invisible.

Without watching the national media, you would be hard put to know that there was even an election campaign going on in this constituency and it is no fault of the FPTP system that we are left to rot on the margins. In 2015, when Ukip was at its height, the combined Ukip and Tory vote exceeded the Labour vote by over 2,000, demonstrating that the seat could be winnable, especially as the Lib-Dem vote had collapsed. But the parties have to put the effort in, and so far they are not even trying.

Nevertheless, whenever we get discussions about political reform, there is always a caucus which pops up to argue for electoral reform, with proportional voting high on the agenda.

Yet, for countries which have adopted proportional representation, one doesn't see noticeably improved governance or systems which are self-evidently more democratic. Simply, you end up with a different way of making the same old mess.

I sometimes think that people are too focused on the mechanics and rituals of democracy, without thinking through what they are trying to achieve. And here, one should recall that the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, did not elect their assemblies. Their representatives were selected by lottery.

To my mind, I would be happy with a system where those prepared to serve registered with their local authorities, which held a ballot of registered applicants every five years to determine who went to Westminster. One could require that, in order to register, each applicant had to pass a qualifying examination and interview, to determine their suitability as MPs. And, of course, party membership would be forbidden.

Elections, in such a system, might be reserved for prime ministers, who would be directly elected. Neither prime ministers nor their cabinet members would be MPs, affording the separation of powers that the current system lacks. The job of parliament is to scrutinise the executive, not to provide a ministerial gene pool.

However, for lack of an equitable system, come 12 December, the majority of us will be sitting on the sidelines, with the election a spectator sport which has absolutely no practical relevance to our constituencies.

When Jess Garland, head of policy for the ERS, says, "We’ve heard often that politics is volatile and anything could happen in the coming election, but even so, hundreds of seats across the country haven't changed party hands for decades", we have to accept that the system is broken.

Whatever this system is, it isn't democracy. It's time for a change.






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