If someone tried to persuade you to exchange your new laptop for a Sinclair computer or your electric car for a Morris Minor, you’d give them short shrift. Their argument, that the outmoded replacements on offer were great examples of traditional British manufacturing, would cut no ice. Efficiency trumps nostalgia in most sectors of our lives, but not, it seems, when it comes to democracy. We put up with an unfair voting system that penalises smaller parties, a decrepit parliament building whose design encourages conflict, not compromise, and an unelected upper house more than eight times bigger than the US senate.
While most European countries have codified constitutions no more than seventy years old, we potter along with a mysterious collection of conventions dating from the age of the horse and cart. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we stifle initiative at the local level by having the most centralised state in Europe. To cap it all, we have a right-wing media dominated by billionaires, often living outside the UK, who pressure the government to run the country in their interest, at the expense of the ordinary citizen.
No wonder then, that in the wake of Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine, Britain is faring worse than similar-sized European countries, with a stuttering economy, collapsing public services and an ever-widening gap between an increasingly poor majority and an ultra-rich elite. On current projections, the average British family will be poorer than their Polish and Slovenian counterparts by the end of the decade.
So, what should we do to start fixing Broken Britain? In my view, the first priority is to introduce proportional representation for national elections. Not only would this give equal weight to all votes, resulting in a truly representative parliament, but it would also have other beneficial side effects, not often mentioned in the electoral reform debate.
In the first place it would, at a stroke, do away with tactical voting, the democratic equivalent of cheating on your partner. People would be free to vote positively for the party of their choice, instead of having to vote negatively to defeat the party they disliked the most.
The second effect would be to dilute the power of the right-wing media, which owes its suffocating influence on both major parties to its hold over the swing voters who decide the outcome of national elections in the one hundred or so key marginal constituencies, also known as ‘battleground seats’. Under proportional representation, the tabloids would have considerably less sway over a much bigger and younger electorate, motivated to vote in the knowledge that, under PR, every vote counts.
It would also mean that opposition parties could respond more freely to the main polling trends, without pandering to a particular electoral constituency. For example, Labour’s current reticence to discuss re-joining the European single market, despite sustained polling evidence of widespread Brexit regret, is due to its fear of offending pro-Brexit voters in the so-called Red Wall seats that, under the current First Past the Post system, it needs to win back at the next election. The Lib-Dems have a similar problem, but for different reasons. Under PR, Labour and the Lib-Dems could afford to appeal to the much bigger Re-join constituency, by starting a more honest discussion about the economic damage caused by Brexit, and the potential gains of re-joining the customs union and the single market.
Finally, any hopes of the UK re-joining the European Union rest ultimately on electoral reform. The EU will never re-admit the United Kingdom while it retains the FPTP system, for the simple reason that an anti-EU party could regain power and once again take the country out of the EU. Only PR can guarantee a long-term pro-EU majority in parliament. Anyone who wants to see the UK back in the EU should therefore concentrate their efforts on first achieving electoral reform.
The current electoral system is one of many democratic failings identified in Fixing Broken Britain: A Blueprint for National Revival. As well as reviewing our creaking political institutions, the book also takes a critical look at the education system, with its class divide, underpaid and undervalued state school teachers, crumbling classrooms and an outdated curriculum that should give far more weight to subjects such as climate change, critical thinking, citizenship and history of the British Empire.
The problems we are now experiencing have been many decades in the making, but recent external shocks, combined with the self-inflicted Brexit fiasco, have cruelly exposed our institutional weaknesses. Fixing Broken Britain does not claim to have all the answers, but it certainly asks many of the right questions.
‘Fixing Broken Britain: A Blueprint for National Revival’ by Alun Drake is available on Amazon in paperback and e-book versions.