fredag 15 september 2006

Swedish democracy - British democracy

There is an election campaign in progress at the moment. Of course, as a visitor who speaks next to nothing of the language, it is impossible to get a true picture of things.

However, a few points are pretty obvious. There are about seven parties. There is some form of proportional representation. And local, regional and national elections are simultaneous and at fixed - every four years - intervals.

In conversation with one of the Greens, I mentioned the British first-post-the-post system, and his immediate response was "how horrible". But the Swedish system doesn't work. The same party - the Social Democrats - has been in power for most of the past seventy years, in recent times governing with a minority as the smaller parties are unable to combine to form an alternative government. That cannot be a good thing.

Blair promised us electoral reform but New Labour abandoned that as soon at it was intoxicated by its first whiff of power. So we too are left with the dictatorship of the largest minority. Some people find their vote is always wasted, and there must be a lot of people who refrain from political activity because they could never swallow the entire set of policies of a political party. And not only that - people use local elections as opinion polls and so perfectly effective and competent local politicians get voted out due to the unpopularity of the party at national level. The system also gives rise to "tactical voting", in which people try to guess the result and vote so as to keep out the candidate they like the least.

This electoral system must be part of the reason why British politics are, and have been for generations, largely dominated by Oxbridge graduates with degrees in PPE or Law. In more recent times, they have followed a simple career path from university to parliament via a party research office or think tank. Never have they done anything like the actual work that most people have to do.

Babies and bathwater
Of course, proportional representation is not a solution in itself, and a party list system like they have in Sweden could merely hand more power to party head offices, who are liable to fill it up with their favourite hacks. The British constituency system has the huge benefit of providing people with a local representative for their areas, though these days, they mainly seem to function as chasers-up of incompetent bureaucrats on behalf of their constituents. Even if the will to change existed, this aspect of British government needs to be held on to.

One way of making parliament more representative whilst keeping the benefits of constituencies is the "Single Transferable Vote". Instead of putting an X against the name of the candidate you want to see elected, you write down numbers against their names in your order of choice - 1, 2, 3, etc. If your first choice is for the candidate who comes third, then your second choice is allocated to one or other of the first two candidates, so your vote isn't wasted. They use the system in Northern Ireland, so why not in the rest of Britain? But this could leave us with the Swedish problem, where the party with the most MPs forms a minority government.

A further useful change benefit would be fixed parliamentary terms, but why do elections need to be national? In the recent past, some local councils had elections by rotation, so that not everyone had to stand for re-election at the same time. At a national level, we might have three groups of constituencies, with staggered elections every two years, with MPs serving a fixed six-year term. This would avoid the kind of sudden change we had in 1997 and can expect again in due course, where goverments are formed of ministers with no previous experience.

Of course these changes would put an end to the two-party hegemony, and as turkeys don't vote for Christmas, we are stuck with more decades of the present ding-dong. Meanwhile, important issues are never addressed in the radical way necessary and one has to ask where things will end?

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Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years ...