Never Mind Proportional Representation – Here’s The Chartists : Annual Elections Now!

the_six_points_of_the_peoples_charter_print-rc6f27e6ff09c40b58c55525db4fde6e8_wve_8byvr_512So who wants 99 UKIP MPs? Probably nobody reading this blog. But as usually happens after UK elections, the Greens and the Left start shouting about how unfair it is that they get over a million votes, yet only one MP.

Sure, 37 Green MPs would be a great alternative voice in parliament, giving the climate change emergency and the myths of austerity some media coverage. It is a serious problem that the views of many millions over issues like the cuts, the NHS or privatisation are effectively censored from public debate because the three main parties represented in parliament  all agree with each other on these issues.

However, those wanting Proportional Representation need to be prepared to accept a much more right wing parliament too. If the 2015 election had been held using PR, most socialists’ greatest fear would’ve been realised. A Tory-UKIP Coalition. If we’d had PR in 2005, we’d have had at least 10 BNP MPs.

So does this mean I think the present system is fair, or something to defend? Well, no, not really. Though there is something to be said for each MP representing a small (ish) area and at least being theoretically accountable to that group of electors. But my main problems with the current PR lobby are quite simple.

PR – Three Little Problems

Firstly, it’s Farage who is of course the main spokesperson for PR.  In a couple of years some of the British Left may be tying itself in knots about how to oppose the EU without lining up with UKIP. Since there is no PR referendum, we shouldn’t be in a rush to decide how a new electoral system should work and we don’t need to sound like PR-loving Farage.

Secondly, PR wouldn’t necessarily be a panacea for the left, or at least the “far left”. The results I cited above are based on MPs being elected in direct proportion to the number of votes. This may even include a once a fortnight pass to the House of Commons for Tusc’s Dave Nellist; or perhaps Class War voters would be represented by their MPs toenails resting on the benches. But of course any system of PR has a threshold of around 5% that a party would have to pass before it’s allowed any representatives. So the likes of Tusc and Left Unity would still be locked out in the cold. On the upside, it could force a bit more much needed cooperation between the left, but I keep hearing calls for left unity, and then hearing the call again. And again. And….

Finally lets say I’ve been won over to PR. What then? Is there any point in campaigning for it? Cameron, whose last referendum nearly back fired and destroyed the United Kingdom is hardly likely to support a bill that could keep the Conservatives away from majority rule forever. “That’s not the point, it’s the democratic principle!” I hear my comrades declare. Maybe that’s true, but if you’re going to start agitating for an impossible demand, why not go for some real democratic socialist accountabilty.

Back to the 1840s

This is where we can look back with pride to Britain’s Chartist Movement of the 1840s. This movement is often seen by Britain’s socialists as the first working class party and the pre-cursor of today’s socialist parties. (I suspect it was a lot better than that!) But also, every school kid is taught how Victorian Britain listened to the democratic demands of the people and gave the Chartists what they wanted.(Not before a few massacres of course.)

It is true that the first five demands of the Chartists were met a long time ago, and in fact have been extended to make us even more democratic.The Chartists demands are seen as the common sense of British Democracy – secret ballots, universal suffrage, no property qualification for MPs, pay for MPs, and equal sized constituencies. But there is one demand they made over 170 years ago that was so ahead of its’ time, almost from another era of extreme democracy, that is hasn’t been granted anywhere else in the world.

“Annual Parliaments”, or Yearly General Elections

“Annual Parliament Elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.”

For me, socialism is as much as anything else an extreme form of democracy. Accountability, the right to recall representatives and elect others are central to much working class organisation – in theory at any rate. The idea that you could elect someone who can then do what the hell they like for five years, or at lest the first four, then throw a few niceties around for a few months and get re-elected is a joke. When hundreds of MPs were shown to be stealing from the taxpayer via expenses fiddles a few years ago, it was outrageous that we couldn’t get rid of them. But of course there’s a reason why every democratic country in the world won’t give it’s citizens the right to get rid of MPs once a year. They claim that they need the stability of the same people in charge, and they know that people don’t remember things from 5 years ago as well as 5 months ago. And the last thing they want is for people to be able to launch a campaign to unseat their MP the moment they show themselves to be corrupt, voting against what they said they supported, or simply not listening to their constituents..

When I was a teenager, I came across a passage from Tony Benn, which continues to inspire crticial minds today.

In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

If we had the right to get rid of those that govern us at least once a year, it would have a far bigger impact on British politics than PR. Of course, there’s no reason we can’t have both. But I think they’re both extremely unlikely to happen in the next 5 years. So if you’re going to make propaganda about what wrong with our democracy, rather than shouting & marching (or more likely e-petioning) for PR, lets start a campaign/facebook group/e-petition for a General Election every May.

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2 thoughts on “Never Mind Proportional Representation – Here’s The Chartists : Annual Elections Now!

  1. I think its worth reflecting on an argument which in the 1980s stressed the real accountability of MPs to their constituency and has now moved to fears that PR would lead to greater representation for fascists. I don’t think fear of democracy ever built a radical movement. Given the reality that we ought to be attempting to replace the Labour Party (related of course to a real crisis of the two party system) I think supporting a system designed to shore up a two party system (however dressed up with ferocious revolutionary scowling about chartism or soviets) looks a bit incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in very small rooms discussing what went wrong in the General Strike (or isn’t simply trying to cobble together a united front with Labour Party members).

    I mean there isn’t anything inherently revolutionary in the British parliamentry system after all and its a bit odd to find comrades still churning out old arguments which were designed for different purposes in the 1980s on a perspective that, well, failed utterly. For me this argument is in danger of confusing hostility to reformism with fear of reform, via abstract propagandism. Its a kind of conservatism and I fear won’t launch many boats. Sorry to be a bit negative on this one. But it sort of worries me this tendency.

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