We have seen that the winner of the Referendum was Westminster itself. The Bubble was strengthened and inflated with its own satisfaction at its victory. Parliament had gambled that the Scots would say No; gambled that the rest of the UK would simply assume that there was a mandate tucked away in the deepest recesses of the manifestos and not notice their new prerogative to play with the constitution as they saw fit.
This was in the teeth of widespread despair at the Bubble. The Yes vote was so much higher than originally expected in part due to a desire to humble an imperious Westminster. When a poll a week before the vote put the Yes campaign ahead, Westminster responded with typical cynicism – all three major parties hastily cobbled together the Vow to give Holyrood much greater powers IF Scotland voted No. It was obvious panic. If Westminster really wanted to devolve further powers – as they had pledged in their manifestos – then why wait until 48 hours before the Referendum took place?
Westminster was also reeling from the anti-Bubble mood. In recent local elections and opinion polls, the anti-European UKIP party was becoming a serious force. As with the Yes campaign, UKIP owed a great deal of its support to those disenchanted with the Westminster system. Until recently, Conservative and Labour alike dismissed UKIP as “fruit cakes” and “closet racists”. The UKIP supporters in the English working class found this response to their concerns on housing, welfare and jobs in the face of immigration deeply insulting. Voting UKIP was for many an act of revenge. This is what it took to begin to prick the Bubble. At last, Westminster engaged in a sensible debate on immigration. Mainstream politicians now fell over themselves to beg working class voters to talk to them.
The cynicism has a long history. Very few politicians expressed much concern with the environment before 1989. All this changed overnight in June 1989. The unknown Green Party won a respectable and unexpected 15% of the poll – 2 million votes – in the European elections. Thereafter, everyone was an evangelist for the environment.
There had been “Cash for Questions” scandals. A cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, had been imprisoned for perjury.
Westminster had been humiliated when the Expenses Scandal exposed how far their snouts were in the trough. Several MPs were imprisoned for fraud.
All parties were committed to cleaning up politics – in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010.
Now in a coalition government, the Liberal Democrats finally had the opportunity to change the structure of British politics. The price of their participation was a referendum on Proportional Representation. The country didn’t understand it and wasn’t interested. The final nail in the coffin was David Cameron breaking his commitment not to intervene in the campaign and, in its final days, condemned the proposal. The few that voted (42% turnout), voted No. Only 32% of the voters were sold.
Few on the street could explain the “alternative vote” (“AV”) system. To those interested, many were uncomfortable with the notion of voting by expressing a “preference”. How does one rank candidates from opposing political philosophies? It didn’t sound very British.
The opportunity to shake the Westminster establishment was lost.
Yet voters will still be expected to cast votes where they know their chosen party has little hope of being elected. This has contributed to the disillusionment felt by significant minorities. If, like the author, you live in a constituency that is extremely unlikely to return the candidate of your choice, the temptation is to vote tactically for the party with the closest chance of defeating the incumbent party or to not vote at all. If you have a problem and need the help of your MP, you must rely on the good offices of an MP who may well represent everything you most despise. Not only have you effectively been disenfranchised – your vote is almost irrelevant if not voting for the winner – but you are unlikely to have a champion for your issues or a sympathetic voice in Parliament. This applies as much to those on the Right as to the Left or the Centre.
Elections become events for marginal constituencies only. The vast majority of constituencies ignored – the results being foregone conclusions. Without serious challenge, MPs can remain in Parliament for many years – a job for life, barring landslides – fostering stale political cultures. No wonder so many have switched off from politics.
It has been this way for a long time, but now the all-pervasive cynicism corrupts the faith that politics can change and politicians will not only listen but act upon sound arguments from those outside the Bubble.
Yet the First Past the Post system has tended to deliver clear Parliamentary majorities and thus strong government. With some exceptions (notably Scotland in 2011), a system of PR tends to result in coalitions. Although with the increased fracturing of politics in recent years, coalitions may become more common under First Past the Post. We may end up with the worst of both worlds – disenfranchised minorities and relatively weak governments.
For Great Britain to survive, it not only requires the resurrection of sound principles such as consent for constitutional change, but also a revival of faith in politics itself. A voting system that re-enfranchises minorities without guaranteeing weak government would encourage participation in politics across the political spectrum and in every constituency.
If Every Vote Counts, then every vote is worth making.