(Update: It turns out she also didn’t bother to actually write a letter to me either, see the bottom of the post.)
For a multitude of reasons, I support proportional representation (PR) systems of voting. The UK currently operates a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of voting. This means that almost every Government in power in the UK rules without the majority of the country’s support (in fact, far from it).
The problem is most succinctly summed up in this five-minute video by CGP Grey:
I should add the caveat that this video refers to the 2015 General Election. The 2017 General Election that we’ve just had wasn’t as disproportionate as this, but that’s unlikely to be because people are any more enthused about our system of voting. For example, I voted for a different party to the one I am a member of, and I was consciously and dejectedly voting for the lesser of two evils.
Also, even though the 2017 General Election was theoretically not as unrepresentative, we are still being governed by a coalition of parties who came nowhere close to gaining the majority of the country’s support.
A cross-party campaign called Make Votes Matter, has been gathering momentum and taking action to try to get PR introduced in the House of Commons. They created a petition for a parliamentary debate on the matter, it gained over 100,000 signatures (one of which was mine), and thus reached the trigger point for a debate to be heard. This debate was scheduled for Monday 30 October 2017.
Knowing this, I duly wrote to my MP, Trudy Harrison, asking her to represent my views at the debate.
I hope that you and your family are well.
I am emailing you as I am aware that there will be a debate on Proportional Representation in Westminster Hall in Parliament at 4:30pm, next Monday. As one of your constituents, I am asking you to represent my views on the matter.
Under the current system, you are my only representative in the House of Commons. I would be very grateful if you could please attend parliamentary petition debate 168657 on 30th October and speak in favour of Proportional Representation, so that all votes count equally and seats match votes.
I heard nothing from Trudy and the subject of PR had its first full discussion in Parliament for seven years. Trudy was notable by her absence.
Then, last week, I received the following letter from Trudy herself:
I was somewhat dismayed by this response for the following reasons:
- Rather than address the subject of my letter, Trudy’s letter is a hectoring ramble about why I am wrong. She makes no commitment to attend the debate and argue either way, presumably because she had already not attended it.
- She has used perhaps the least compelling, off-the-shelf arguments for FPTP and against PR. This feels frankly patronising. Surely any MP worth their salt would assume that a constituent writing to them in support of PR is aware of the most basic arguments in favour of FPTP.
- She has used one of the most well-worn, and well-debunked, arguments that the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) voting method represented a rejection of PR. AV is categorically not PR. But Trudy has taken it a step further than I’ve seen from any other politicians by asserting that the vote against AV was a clear vote in favour of FPTP. She provides no evidence of this, just merely states it as fact. Firstly, there is no evidence for this. If you asked a hundred people if they’d rather be shot or stabbed to death, and a majority opted for being shot, it doesn’t mean that they’re in favour of being shot. It merely represents their view that being shot isn’t as bad as being stabbed to death. Secondly, I voted against AV precisely because it wasn’t proportional! So to be told by my MP that my vote represented something that it didn’t is doublespeak of the worst kind.
- Her off-the-shelf arguments for FPTP are frankly absurd in the current political climate. A quick recap:
- The least proportional Government ever elected brought forth a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
- Said Government was so unrepresentative and had so misjudged the mood of the nation that it lost the referendum, despite having almost every conceivable edge over their opposing side.
- Upon this loss, the Prime Minister went back on his word by both immediately resigning and not triggering the motion to enact the result of the referendum (Article 50).
- The governing party was in such disarray that a new leader was selected by default as the other candidates stabbed each other in the back or dropped out of the running for saying stupid things. (Note therefore that the least representative Government – ever – selected a new leader without a proper contest even among its own members.)
- After showing some early promise to her supporters, this new leader then opted to hold a snap General Election having sworn blind that under no circumstances would she do so.
- She then proceeded to run a campaign so poorly orchestrated that she lost her massive lead in the polls and ended up losing the election.
- She is now at the helm of a Government with a wafer-thin majority, propped up by one of the fringest of fringe parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP have strong historical links to terrorist groups, don’t believe in climate change (they believe the world is only 6,000 years old and don’t believe in dinosaurs), oppose women’s rights (they are pro-forced pregnancy), oppose gay marriage and believe that being gay is a sin, and have a member who appeared to agree with a member of the public last year that Northern Ireland needs to “get the ethnics out”. And the DUP are the difference between this Government having and not having a majority in the House of Commons.
- But Trudy is arguing that FPTP prevents disproportionate influence by minority parties? (Incidentally, all parties in the UK are currently “minority parties”. The last time a Governing party was elected with a popular majority was in 1931.)
- There is now substantial evidence within the Conservative Party of a looming coup if things get any worse for the Government.
- All hopes now appear to be pinned on one of the least charismatic politicians (known to his friends as “Spreadsheet Phil” and who describes himself in one word as “fiscal”) delivering a budget this week that will be met with a standing ovation on all sides. I won’t hold my breath.
- So to her final paragraph, right now we have neither a decisive Government with a working majority, nor a clear opposition – the Labour party are deeply divided and are apparently unable to take advantage of the Conservatives being as weak as they’ve looked since 1997. And it doesn’t look like anything is going to change for the foreseeable future.
- I was the Green Party candidate in the by-election in which Trudy was first elected! We know each other, a little. Even taking her point of view into consideration, it seems frankly laughable that Trudy and her office didn’t see fit to tailor the letter to me and perhaps downplay the “minority party” aspect of her response. (And just by the by, the Green Party received more than twice as many votes as the DUP in the last General Election – the Greens have one MP while the DUP have 10. As well as this, the DUP hold a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly despite only gaining 36% of the vote in Northern Ireland.) This would seemingly demonstrate a concerning degree of incompetence either from Trudy or her staff.
- During the by-election in which I stood against Trudy, the Brexit question came up numerous times. Trudy’s opinion in her literature and in the words that she spoke was that MPs should represent their constituents on the matter. This is a point that has been consistently posited by the Brexiteers in Parliament, and it’s a worrying issue for them because prior to the referendum, the vast majority of MPs were pro-Remain. So, if Trudy thinks that MPs should represent their constituents on Brexit, why does she not seem to think it’s even worth entering into a dialogue with one of her constituents on other matters of democracy. Her letter to me might as well just read, “sorry, no, you’re wrong.”
- As demonstrated above, this letter isn’t personalised, which suggests I’m not the only one receiving it, which leads me to assume that Trudy has sent this to all of the people who wrote to her asking her to support PR. How many of them are there? Should we maybe facilitate a debate on the matter within her constituency?
To summarise, Trudy’s letter illustrates exactly why I think we need proportional representation. She is my only representative in Parliament, and she is therefore the only elected person with some degree of a responsibility to reply to me. Yet her response to my polite request for her to represent me in parliament is as good as, “sorry, I don’t give a shit. I can’t even be arsed to write a personalised letter, I’ll just get one of my flunkies to Google why FPTP is better than PR and fob you off with nonsense. And by the way, this letter ignoring your opinions represents why this system is good.”
Now, someone who disagrees with me might wonder what I think Trudy should have done. Of course, you might reasonably argue that I’m not very representative of her constituents and that it’s very possible that, if asked, they would support FPTP. And this is all well and good. The point is, she doesn’t have to agree with me to at least represent me. She might have attended the debate and said that while she is personally in favour of FPTP for the reasons she sets out above, numerous constituents of hers have written to her in support of PR. Given her apparent support of the “will of the people” with regard to Brexit, why do the British people not deserve a say on the voting method used to elect herself and her colleagues?
Update: Since writing this post, it turns out that Trudy didn’t write this letter at all. People across the country have received identical copies of this letter from their Conservative MPs. What a sham. There couldn’t be a better demonstration of a need for reform than this.