"our condition is not sound but rotten"
"If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."
It's an old anarchist slogan and sometimes it seems as though it's true.
There's less trust in electoral polls every day. There are good reasons for that lack of trust:
- The British electoral system is unfair and unrepresentative. The New Labour Party's current large majority was achieved by gaining just over 35% of the vote. Given the low turn-out, this means that the government can claim the support of just over 1 in 5 of the elctorate (21.59%).
- The electoral processes in Britain are unreliable and may be subject to wide-scale fraud. This has been pointed out by a judge in one of the recent vote-rigging trials. Postal votes have been stolen and forged. The government response has included praise of a higher turn-out. But a higher turn-out can be achieved by requesting ballot-papers on behalf of people unlikely to vote and filling them in.
- Government suggestions and experiments to "increase voter turn-out" have included voting by text message, by internet and by digital TV - experiments which researchers described as "deeply flawed". But despite the dangers to democracy, the government continues to suggest innovations which prevent scrutiny of the system.
Despite this, the government repeatedly claims a "mandate" for all kinds of policies. Burying a policy in the small-print of a manfesto which few voters get to read seems sufficient to herd a majority of MPs into whichever lobby supports Mr Blair.
No wonder the electorate prefers to vote for favourite contestants in "The X-Factor", "Big Brother" and "Celebrity Come Dancing". If the voting system turns out to be skewed or the wrong person wins, it does far less damage.
It could be argued that every vote cast in a British election is cast in support of the current system - and there's no way of voting against it.
Think of some of the limits to the current system:
- you cannot vote for an honest republican. Every Member of Parliament must swear or affirm an oath of loyalty to the crown.
- elections are determined by a few thousand (at most a few hundred thousand) floating voters who shift between the three main parties in a few constituencies. As long as party loyalty persists, there will be a tendency to direct election-winning policies at the interests of that group above all others.
- should you vote for a candidate who is elected, your vote will be used as evidence that you supported every policy in that party's manifesto, as well as any policy that party happens to come up with in future.
- some policies aren't the subject of votes in the House of Commons. The renewal of Trident may eventually be subject to a vote, but the government only decided this after checking the vote could be won. The decision had already been made.
- there are no effective sanctions against misleading parliament. The vote to go to war against Iraq was rigged by presenting falsehoods to the House of Commons.
- seats in the second house of parliament, the House of Lords, are gained in obscure ways. The current police investigation points to the possibility that the power to vote in this House - and affect the government of the nation - has been put up for sale.
What is to be done?
Change requires the involvement of many. Britain is shifting from democracy to autocracy, with elections masking the power structures. Even Members of Parliament can do little and the citizens (or subjects) of the country can do less.
A starting point is the repeated expression of opinions in serious debate. If we talk about our views and why we hold them - and listen to others, giving their views serious consideration - we may just find our understanding advances. We may find new means of taking action.
In the meantime, although it's not a major advance, readers of this blog may like to vote on the Radio 4 Today programme for the law they would most like to see repealed.
I'd recommend voting for the repeal of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I think people like Brian Haw should be able to protest outside parliament. I think people like Maya Evans should be allowed to read the names of the war-dead aloud without being arrested.
But you - like all people - can think for yourself. Make your own decision.