I’ve been really trying to avoid overtly political blog posts, in the main because it’s a topic that I once loved but which now winds me up no end. However with what should be both an empowering and monumental polling day just around the corner I have felt increasingly confused, dis-empowered and marginalised – not the words you’d usually expect to hear from an educated, middle class, white person so it shows just what a problem we might have out there. For those international readers (and those UK based readers who have been on their own media diets) Thursday is a polling day (i.e. an election). In Wolverhampton I can vote for who I want to represent me on the City Council. That’s a pretty empowering concept when you come to think about it and is the level of representative democracy that should perhaps be the most real and tangible to us all. Without sounding to League of Gentlemen, its local people being elected by their peers to tackle local issues based on the ideas they propose to address them with. Sounds good doesn’t it. It’s a shame that in the Penn ward in Wolverhampton there are 5 candidates standing and only one of these has even introduced themselves let alone presented the issues they stand on. Added to this the ward is currently “represented” by three local councillors who fail to communicate with their constituents in print let alone person and who despite never asking me or my neighbours purport to speak on our behalf in the local press. For me this is a failing of one of the most basic yet fundamental levels of any democratic system. How can somebody “represent” a wider population in this way? And how can candidates even put themselves forward if they are unprepared to make a basic introduction. It is not only dis-empowering it is an insult to us and leaves you wondering how to use your “precious” vote. Academics and think tanks wonder about the death of local democracy. They need do no more than look at what is happening in their own back yards.
So why is this the case? That brings me to the next dilemma I’ve had – what do I do in this “monumental” referendum? Again, for those who are not UK based or those who have missed the engaging debate on the doorstep (of course!) the referendum is on changing the voting method for electing Member of Parliament from first past the post (FPTP) (i.e. the winner is the person who gets more votes than the next nearest candidate) to additional vote (AV) (FPTP but where the winner must get 50% of the vote based on first, second, third etc preferences). Are you still with me? Good, because I’m already lost and the arguments for and against have been less than helpful. The referendum itself is the only promise that the Liberal Democrat partners on the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition seem to have kept and even then have watered it down and if that isn’t a good enough sign of how power corrupts I’m at a loss to find a better one. However, whilst parts of the media have referred to a “testy” and tempestuous campaign it seems to me that this is limited to the cabinet room rather than the living room or streets. At best the choice is between a broken system and a slightly less broken system. Is a vote for AV a step in the right direction or will it just lead to a mild tinker to keep the power brokers sweet today? Whilst I agree with some of the arguments of the Yes campaign I also see some credence in parts of the No campaign’s logic. But once again, I think the real focus of this argument is being missed and the heart of it lies in the political system which has mutated over time.
As with the local elections hypothetically we elect from our wider population MPs to represent us nationally. When we vote, we vote for a person. They can stand under any banner they chose and whilst many chose to do so under the banner of one of the major political parties the winning candidate is winner in their name only. They cannot be transferred or substituted at the whim of a party executive. So we end up with 650 individuals in Westminster who then form blocks in order to form a government.
The problem is, these blocks have somehow shifted our relationship with candidates and the power of the Party has grown inversely I would argue to that which we have as voters. National elections are now fought almost exclusively on national issues , perhaps logically, but the campaign in many constituencies falls under the control of the central apparatus of the main parties in a controlled way. Add to this what has become the norm of enthusiastic career politicians seeking any parliamentary opportunity, candidates are becoming more disconnected from their constituents on the simple basis that an increasing number are not from that area. Whilst this might be forgivable if these candidates go on to be elected and then live in the constituency, making a real connection with their constituents in so doing, I’m not sure this is the case. I know of one constituency MP in Staffordshire who has vowed never to live in the place he supposedly represents. Why does this happen? Because our political system is highly controlled by the small groups of political elites who have made it through our representative system to then feel they can have ultimate control. Their concern for us on the voter list extends only as far as the marginal seat. Elsewhere we get what we are given. Therefore the real issue is whether we want to defend the right to vote for an individual and what they represent or hand power over to the ruling political classes and let them decide who is worthy of being our master. AV won’t answer that but its the debate that needs to be had. If that is the case my preference is for either system but that every candidate must live in the constituency in which they wish to seek election. My experience of truly local MPs is that they are more connected to their constituents and are in return respected by more forgoing party loyalties. This could be the way to reconnect politics and politicians and make our representatives work for us not just for themselves.
So it is with a heavy heart that I cast my vote on Thursday. Locally I feel used, nationally I feel abused. I am a one in ten, just a number on a list – it’s not even a phone number as they don’t even call to say hello, we love you. Sorry for the political interlude, normal life and cycling issues will return in due course.