The procedures that are used to elect a parliament in the United Kingdom are often cited as being an example to developing nations, although in comparison to many other European countries there are clearly alternative procedures that many might see as offering a greater choice and promoting a better form of democracy. In spite of these procedures the United Kingdom has made better progress in terms of increasing diversity among members who are elected. Just over one hundred years ago the parliament was comprised of men, they were likely to be white, they were likely to have received a private school education and to have gone to university, many would be related to the landed gentry, few would have any experience of work in an industrial situation.
Changes came with the rise of socialism in the early part of the twentieth century, men entering parliament from working class backgrounds, with experience of a wide number of trades and professions. Whilst socialism had popular appeal the communist party never really gained a strong foothold. The next change was to allow for the election of women to the parliament, following a long struggle by the suffragettes. This took place in 1918, although we had to wait until 1979 before we saw the first woman as Prime Minister. The first black members were elected in the 1980’s, the first blind person to serve as a cabinet minister in the mid-1990s.
The current parliament (June 2017) is being hailed as one of the most diverse, the progress made is pleasing even if it still does not truly reflect the society in the United Kingdom. Over half of the current parliament have not been to selective or private schools, there are a larger number who are prepared to identify themselves as members of the LGBT community, almost one third of those elected are women, there are more from ethnic minorities. In this sense it is hard to argue that parliament is not moving forward, albeit slowly, to a more diverse make up in terms of gender, ethnicity and education.
The question is, does this mean there is diversity in other ways? Suppose that parliament was made up of half female and half male, that all ethnic minorities were represented in the approximately the same proportion that is found in the wider community, and that the other measures of diversity continue to approve, what does this really tell us? What is not being measured is whether we are seeing an increase in diversity in points of view.
There are a number of ways of looking at this. If we were to consider all the various viewpoints that are offered by over six hundred members then the diversity might appear to be as wide as ever. This might encourage us to give ourselves a small pat of the back and to say that we are doing exceptionally well in our diversity of views. However, views are not represented in this way, and the better way to consider the diversity of views is to consider the different parties, the manifestos that these parties prepare, and the way that the views are expressed in parliament in terms of voting. Only then can we consider whether we have a diversity of views.
Where there are only two parties that dominate, and effectively control the agenda in the parliament, each regards the opposition as ‘an enemy that is there to be beaten’. This position might be understandable during an election campaign, but may also have a disastrous effect on what happens after the election. The pattern in recent years has been to see not simply a divergence of opinion in policy but a form of polarising that makes no sense to the casual observer. Consider the positions of right and left on the elderly and on funding. One might expect that the position of the left would be to say that funding should be fair and distributed according to need and also related to the funds available. On such a basis the needy would be protected and the wealthy would be required to contribute more. In fact, the benefit known as ‘winter fuel allowance’ was being argued by the left as a benefit to be given to all, no matter how wealthy they were, whilst the right was calling for a form of means testing. A policy announced by the right was immediately opposed by the other major party taking the opposite view. This sort of polarity, opposing for the sake of opposing, raises the issue of whether this will always happen in a two party system. The dismembering of healthcare in the United States shows just how damaging two party politics can be for a large section of the population who need assistance.
On other issues we did see the more traditional left and right stances. The left was in favour of free tuition for students at college, and for maintenance grants to be available for the needy, whilst the right was in favour of high tuition fees and loans to cover fees and maintenance. The latter method puts the ‘debt’ in the hands of the student, to be repaid upon starting employment provided the salary is above a minimum level. The left wing view is that the ‘debt’ is paid for by all taxpayers through higher taxes that go across the board. There is a polarity in views, but really the difference is how the debt is to be paid and who pays that debt.
The divide over public ownership of utilities, such as energy production, transport and water , followed the old lines. The left looked to nationalisation whilst the right looked for privatisation. There was some dispute over the possible privatisation of the health service, but the lines were still there. Foreign policy followed a similar pattern of the old divide, the right looking to sell arms and support regimes deemed to be ‘friendly’ or ‘useful’, whilst the left was opposed to the sale of arms. The use of nuclear weapons showed a similar polarity, one party prepared to launch a ‘first strike’, the other reluctant to use the weapons.
The most obvious risk of having this form of divide is that when one party assumes power and enacts legislation to carry out policy then much expenditure is incurred. If the next election produces a change in governing party then legislation is repealed, new legislation put in place, more expenditure is incurred. This could continue for each change in government, resulting in much public expenditure but very little action in terms of long term planning. A lack of long term planning is usually displayed and recognised by a failure to invest in infrastructure, by housing shortages, and a lack of other projects such as those required to meet the demands of action on climate change. These are the symptoms of a country in decline and we may be observing this in the United kingdom at present.
There are at least three ways in which the effects of such polarity can be mitigated and to be effective we really need to see all three of these in action. The first change that would benefit the United Kingdom would be a return to more moderate views when a party is in power, a move towards a centrist position rather than an extreme. This might attract more cross-party support and when there is a change in power perhaps reduce the waste of expenditure that polarisation can produce. However, there is also an argument against this approach, there are some issues that really do not require compromise but need more extreme action and more urgency if we are to make a real change. In part these can be attributed to centrist approaches, so that the need for action on climate change has become more urgent because there has been too much compromise rather than pressing on to promote renewable energy and abandoning of fossil fuels.
The real key to avoiding polarisation is to give better representation of points of view. At present the use of a ‘whip’ system discourages individual party members who are elected from doing anything other than following the party line, rebellions are actually very rare. The best way forward is to progress towards proportional representation, where parties can be represented according to the share of the overall vote that is received by that party. Both major parties in the United Kingdom are opposed to the idea, clinging to the idea that as long as ‘first past the post’ can be maintained we can have two=party politics and there is no need to share power with anyone as long as you win. Such an approach not only makes economic nonsense because of the waste of resources from polarity, but also illustrates a selfishness of those who support the idea. The selfishness comes about because they are never prepared to consider alternative views, to think of the potential benefits that might come about from compromise. Imagine a situation where families were run by only one parent and ask whether that is really likely to promote harmony. Most people would agree that the result is more likely to be an undercurrent of dissent and ignoring the wishes and rights of some family members. Amazingly politicians seem to think you can run a country with such dissent as long as the law lets you have the right to rule.
Proportional representation, rather than alternative voting that only helps reinforce a two party system, would allow minority views to be heard. There might well be an increase in the number of political parties, and so a greater diversity of views. The probable result of any election would be that a number of parties might then have to come together and work together to form a government that is more representative of the electorate. The need to reach a consensus would avoid polarisation and encourage long term investments. The media hype about ‘coalitions of chaos’ is simply not supported by experiences elsewhere.
For the United Kingdom a two party domination has brought both chaos and uncertainty, the possibly of yet another election looming, time and resources wasted, further delays in any consideration of long term planning and no sign of a lessening of polarisation. Diversity of views is being suppressed through the media, through an antiquated voting system and through a lack of funding. Another election and a possible change of government under a two party system is not going to produce solutions, but will further intensify the polarisation and will eventually lead to fewer people becoming actively involved in politics at any level. If we want the benefits of diversity, the security of longer term planning, the promotion of harmony among many different groups then we have to find a way forward that breaks away from the domination of two party politics.