Well the awful event has occurred and Britain is once more plunged into the existential darkness of a malignant Tory government. But how does it look to an ex-Pom, a Pozzie – Aussie Pom – such as myself who recently voted online in the NSW election, to no avail, again, unfortunately, and who has now endured a British election campaign and voted here, which is my birthright?
Just before election day we went to see David Hare’s “The Absence of War” at the Theatre Royal, Bath, a highly topical piece, even though it was written and first performed in 1993. Hare depicts the struggles of the Labour Party to win the 1992 election that was eventually won by John Major and the Tories after Labour’s campaign faltered not least due to the incessant and vicious vilification and misrepresentation of Neil Kinnock the then leader of the Labour party who had painstakingly re-positioned the party of the previous few years ready for the next election which ultimately laid the groundwork for the revisionist politics of Blair and New Labour.
We see the leadership, campaign and policy advisors argue over and explicate the strategy and tactics of their campaign, especially the need for iron discipline in managing the image of the party and leader, George Jones in this fiction, and of staying “on message” at all times. In the event, Jones is undone by a disastrous television interview in which he is ambushed by a smarmy, self-satisfied tool of the establishment to whom secret discussion over the Labour manifesto has been leaked.
The sense of deja-vu is overwhelming. Over twenty years separate the original play from this year’s election and yet nothing seems to have changed. The Tories, no matter what they may claim are still the party of the establishment and the wealthy and privileged who are expert at convincing the electorate that their interests are aligned with those of the ruling class while Labour thrashes around unable to summon the courage to say what it really believes in and terrorized at every turn by a media largely in service to the Tory party.
One of the most tragic aspects of all of this for me was the grotesquery of the first-past-the-post
electoral system displayed in all its glorious injustice. The SNP polled about 1.5m votes and gloated over their trouncing of Labour to the tune of 56 seats while the UKIP vote was in excess of 4m and yielded a derisory single seat. Even the proportion of votes for the now destroyed Lib Dems did not result in a fair representation in seats. Meanwhile the smug Tories once again are allowed to grind us all into poverty once more.
The golden opportunity to remedy this was botched back in 2011 due in no small part to the shameless rigging of the referendum question as the Tories took a leaf out of John Howard’s Republic referendum book in Australia in 1999. The question was phrased in this way. Voters were asked whether they wished:
“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”
Notice that there are really two questions here, the first asks if voters would like a Republic but the second qualifies this by adding the rider regarding the method of appointing the Head of State. Now a clear majority of Australians wanted a Republic but there was much dispute as to how the new Head of State was to be elected, that is, by popular vote or by a vote in parliament. Knowing that there was a majority among those who wanted a republic for the former option Howard deliberately made the choice for a republic dependent on a second factor that most did not want and hey presto the Republicans lost.
In 2011 the UK held a referendum on whether the first-past-the-post system should be changed to an “Alternative Vote” system not dissimilar to that in Australia. Whilst the question wording was not exactly fudged there was a sustained fear campaign around the supposed “complexity” of the proposed system illustrated by what were to be the ballot instructions:
Schedule 6 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill proposes to amend Paragraph 5 of Rule 29 of Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, so that the instructions to the voter displayed in ballot boxes would be changed from an instruction to vote for only one candidate, to read:
“Remember—use 1, 2, 3 etc at this election—this is an election using the alternative vote system. Put the number 1 next to the name of the candidate who is your first choice (or your only choice, if you want to vote for only one candidate). You can also put the number 2 next to your second choice, 3 next to your third choice, and so on. You can mark as few or as many choices (up to the number of candidates) as you wish. Do not use the same number more than once. Put no other mark on the ballot paper, or your vote may not be counted.”
Apparently this would be way too difficult for the British voting public to cope with even though those uneducated colonials down-under had been voting this way since Federation and had in any case, devised procedures whereby parties advised voters how to distribute their preferences to maximise a parties chances of winning. This is completely standard practice in Australia. The net effect of this form of voting is to deliver a much fairer allocation of seats to weight of vote and means that a vote is never entirely wasted as a candidate can win the “primary vote” but lose “after preferences” thus reflecting a broader consensus within an electorate. Add to that compulsory voting and you start to get something that more closely resembles a voting system that delivers the democratic will of the people.
One of the benefits of not merely travel but actually living for any reasonable length of time in a different country, let alone a different culture, is that one comes to realise just how ethnocentric, as the anthopologists would say, or at the very least parochial, each locale generally is. This is no more apparent than in public arguments over whether various social arrangements could ever work. Rather as with imperfect market knowledge in economic theory, the commentators and pundits immediately set to telling the public how something that, unbeknownst to them works perfectly well in some other part of the world, would be totally impossible to implement, would inevitably result in the sky falling in and surely bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Thus is fear generated from ignorance.
In the aftermath of the election debacle 56 SNP MPs have now descended on Westminster with much hoopla from the media and the SNP itself about how they are going to shake up Parliament and put another independence referendum on the agenda etc. etc..
In all the hoo hah it seems to have been overlooked that the Tories now have a working majority. Under the British system of Constitutional Monarchy, as we have been discussing above, that means that they are forming the government – not the SNP – and that they can vote in any legislation that they want, even if all other MPs vote against it. So what if Nicola Sturgeon starts to act like a Scottish “Boudicea” at Prime Minister’s Question Time. It may afford some good theatre and endless opportunities for vicious misogyny and vilification by the press (see Julia Gillard for an object lesson in this), and by the way you heard it here first, but why should anyone believe that she will be able to turn the tide of Tory politics anymore than Labour who still have more than three time as many seats as the SNP.
Where Tory politics are really going might be more accurately divined from the proposal for large city councils to have greater control over their budgets dependent on them adopting a system of elected mayors. I can’t imagine the agenda behind that one, can you?