Changing the voting system

The third Democracy Café was run on Saturday 11 November 2017 at the Arts Centre.  The numbers attending increased slightly to 30 with many familiar faces and some new ones.  For visitors new to this site, the event starts with people suggesting topics they wish to discuss (of a broadly political nature) and then we vote on which one to debate.  Last time we ended up discussing several of the other options.  This time we stuck to the one: should we change the voting system?

A break in proceedings

It was clear that many felt a degree of frustration with the voting system we have now which is ‘first past the post.’  It is argued by politicians that this leads to a government with a clear majority able to carry through difficult policies in the country’s best interests.  Several noted that this is not what we have following the last election when we were promised a ‘strong and stable government’ …

Proportional Representation

The idea of proportional representation was discussed at various points with some of the different types of PR being mentioned.  Several suggested that the British people were not ready for an alternative system.  Generally, PR gets a bad press in the UK perhaps because the notion of a clear majority enabling strong government still has traction.  There was little appetite for a change among the two main parties as they would be the ones most likely to lose.

One person emphasised the educational system as being key and cited the system in Germany.  Young people had to be educated about political matters so that they were in a better position to make judgements at election time.

It was also suggested that once the Labour Party realised they were never likely to win an election again, particularly following their debâcle in Scotland, they might come round to the idea of PR.

We have an adversarial political system which would make the change to a more consensual one hard.

Local politics

One of the principal topics of discussion however concerned local politics.  Points here included poor communication about policy options, and what was referred to as a ‘county bias’ which might have meant the long running problem of the remoteness Salisbury feels from county hall especially now we no longer have a district council.  This led to a debate how could people change things?  The problem though is when one considers a particular problem such as homelessness and the housing problem generally, or the increasing use of food banks, the core problem isn’t local but national.  So local actions will not tackle the dysfunctional nature of national politics.

However, it was pointed out that although some people felt outraged by these matters – perhaps most people in the room – many people outside did not share these opinions.  For them, people who went to food banks for example, were scroungers after a free meal and not worthy of helping.  This enabled politicians to disparage such people and downplay the problem saying it was because they led ‘chaotic lives.’

Someone brought up the example of Frome [Flatpack Democracy] in the context of local action and the question was asked ‘could it be applicable in Salisbury?  It was hard to say.  Entrenched attitudes might make it difficult here but referring to the point above about Salisbury’s remoteness from county hall in Trowbridge, one the driving forces in Frome was their remoteness from Taunton.  So perhaps …?

It was suggested that people are just not angry enough to force change.  A predominantly Conservative press does not help.  Despite a sense that politics was failing completely there was a feeling as someone said ‘there was a swell of people waiting for someone to give us a voice.’  Indeed, this sense of frustration suffused the entire debate, a sense that politicians were remote and that real problems were not being addressed.

The current issue of tax avoidance briefly came up as the ‘Paradise Papers’ were very much in the news.  Despite this latest evidence of monumental tax avoidance, very little was likely to change as the public was more concerned with welfare cheats.  The siphoning off of wealth overseas led directly to the cuts in public services, including the NHS, which probably wouldn’t be necessary if this activity was curtailed.  It was part of the belief that tax was bad and the less of it the better.  In that context the contrast with ancient Greece was noted where there was public affluence and public squalor: today we had the exact reverse.

Peter Curbishley