Wednesday, 18 November 2009

America today is an example of why we so desperately need electoral reform

It's a familiar predicament to some Conservatives this side of the pond - who do you support in US politics, Republicans or Democrats? That might seem like a very simple question to many on both the centre-right and -left of the British political spectrum, but international affiliations aren't always so clean-cut.

To some it may seem baffling, but there was a considerable swell of support for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections from within the Conservative party. It may have been a minority, but it was also a large one - boasting among its members none other than the increasingly independent Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

A leaf through Obama's election manifesto gives some clues as to why this may have been the case - America strong but fair overseas, support for the middle classes, an enterprise culture, individual freedom, opportunity - all traditionally Conservative policies which reflect the far more right-wing nature of American society Obama needed to appeal to than here in Britain.

Then of course there was the historic lure of the first black president of the United States. For many - nearly 150 years since the abolition of slavery - this was reason in itself to support the Democratic ticket.

However, things change. Now that the post-election euphoria is over, President Obama is losing much support over his centralising and statist tendencies, particularly over healthcare. To some it no longer seems unjust or extreme to call him a socialist. Others see him as taking America down the same self-destructive road as Britain did in 1945.

Oppositions change also. Having faltered under an all-embracing moderate in John McCain, the Republican party is taking a particularly steep lurch towards its religious right, firstly with vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and now with newly rising star Congressman Michele Bachmann. Theirs is a conservatism that, set out of the context of US politics, is quite peculiar and alien to many in the Conservative party.

For example, in response to Obama's health insurance plan, Bachmann told her supporters ;

What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this does not pass.

Supporters who by the way, dress up as Speaker Nancy Pelosi whilst holding "handfuls of bloody foetuses" and use photographs of Jewish corpses from the Holocaust under the heading 'National Socialist Healthcare', according the the Observer.

Aggressive, extremist and downright nasty, it is a conservatism that places great importance on opposing abortion and gay rights, while claiming that the 'real America' (in Palin's words) is the God-fearing Bible Belt of the South and the remote rural communities of the mid-West and Alaska. It is an essentially divisive brand of politics that could not be much farther from the inclusive politics of the Cameroons and the increasingly libertarian values of today's Conservative Future.

There is of course a reason for this - Britain's Conservatives are currently on the way up, while the defeated Republicans are doing much the same as Labour did after 1979 under Michael Foot - retreating to a safe yet self-destructive brand of radical extremism.

In this extremely polarised political climate - socialists to the left, religious fundamentalists to the right - one would be forgiven for thinking that the sensible American voter has very little room for manoevre, particularly when the two main parties together claim 96% of the popular vote. The Libertarian party - at present the largest third party - achieved only 0.8% in the 2006 midterm elections.

This is a recipe for political apathy, and it is no coincidence that voter turnout has rarely strayed above 60% in America for the last 100 years. Conversely, since 1945 British voter turnout has only dipped below the high 70s following Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

Interestingly, whilst America's current problem appears to be the lack of any real middle ground in politics, contemporary Britain appears to be suffering from an abundance of it. In my own canvassing around the Penistone & Stocksbridge constituency I am constantly being told by voters that they feel there is very little difference between the modern Labour party and the Conservatives, and that as such they do not feel inclined to vote.

One manifestation of this is that neither of the two main parties are willing to speak about immigration, despite appearing to be an issue of paramount importance to many of the voters I speak to. Another is that, in seeking the common ground, Labour has completely lost touch with its traditionally working class constituency.

Indeed, the most common response I hear while canvassing Penistone & Stocksbridge is that while the individual has voted Labour all their lives, they will never do so again. Some, attracted by socialist economic policies and a hard line on immigration, openly support the BNP.

In both systems there is a clear democratic deficit that must be closed. A situation in which voters will not vote for a party who best represents their views lest their vote be wasted is an incredibly unjust situation indeed. Worse still, when they vote for extremists because they feel they are not being listened to, this risks bringing down the democratic system itself.

The rise of militarism and fascism in 1920s/30s Japan, for example, happened largely because ordinary Japanese people had entirely lost faith in a corrupt two-party politics that they felt no longer represented them.

Some kind of electoral reform would go a long way towards renewing the youth of the state (to paraphrase Macaulay's speech on the Reform Bill, 1831) and giving people back the confidence of knowing that every one of their votes count - whether they wish to vote Labour, Conservative, UKIP, Green or Monster Raving Loony.

However, in this country there is one problem with introducing proportional representation or alternative voting, and that is the monarchy. Without a strong, directly elected presidency (as in France), a political system of this kind is at risk of deadlock and over-compromising consensus. This has been demonstrated no more vividly than in Belgium, which between June and December 2007 was unable to form even an interim government.

My own suggestions of republicanism have been met with a surprisingly passionate defence of monarchy, given the drubbing that the royal family frequently receive in the nation's press. However, that is not to say that there have not been sympathetic ears to the principle of the suggestion.

Some suggested making the position of prime minister elected - though this seems to have constitutional ramifications so complex as to make it impossible - whilst others suggested creating an elected position above the prime minister, serving as a constitutional representative of the sovereign (which in this case could mean either the monarch or the people) leaving the PM to represent the House of Commons.

Given that a similar situation exists in Commonwealth realms such as Canada and Australia, this doesn't sound like such an unlikely suggestion. While not an elected position, the Governer-General in these states serves as a representative of the Queen and fulfils the de facto duties of a head of state.

Whether this elected position would be named Governor-General, President, or even Lord Protector, the question of electoral reform cannot fail to be an issue in future parliaments. It is absolutely vital in order to ensure that Her Majesty's government is indeed representative of her subjects and that our democracy is both strengthened and perpetuated.

However, this must be done in the spirit of full, honest and careful debate in both the country and in the House of Commons. It must not be done, as has been attempted by this dying government, in the spirit of expediency, populism and panic.