On 31st May 2015, The Guardian website published an article titled ‘The real reason David Cameron is sitting on a Commons majority’, written by the award-winning political commentator and critically-acclaimed broadcaster and author Andrew Rawnsley.
It is, in my view, the most accurate and honest assessment I have read of the political landscape in the UK both before and after the 2015 general election, in which the Conservatives were able to form a government with a tiny majority of 12 seats in parliament.
Rawnsley’s article – which pre-empted and referenced a now published Electoral Reform Society (ERS) report on how and why the 2015 general election has produced the most disproportionate result in British election history – is excellent, not least of all because he concludes by laying bare the futility of pushing for Proportional Representation (PR) in a landscape where the only parties that can ever call the shots under First Past The Post (FPTP) have nothing to gain from introducing it.
The current system always delivers a majority of seats in parliament one way or another, so it can always be argued that it is democratic enough, even though it patently isn’t. Calls for ditching FPTP in favour of PR can therefore always be ignored, all the while only beneficiaries of the current system are the ones in power. Which is always and forever, as things stand.
And yet, inexplicably, simply calling for PR remains the central strategy of the ERS and most other reformists at this time. It’s maddening.
What Andrew sadly doesn’t go on to discuss – and what the ERS seem unable to grasp – is that the way to achieve democratic reform in such a landscape is to go back to basics, figure out what else is missing and determine what is actually achievable. When you sit down and do this, the solution presents itself.
There is only one reform that would be achievable now with enough support for it. It is achievable because it represents a democratic pre-requisite, a mechanism that is essential in any system of government claiming to be a democracy, one that should have been there all along and that cannot be argued against without arguing against democracy itself, once it is properly understood.
It is the ability to formally withhold consent and reject all that is on offer at the ballot box. The key word there is formally. Consent is central to the concept of democracy but only measurable if it is possible to withhold it. In the context of elections, consenting (voting) is a formal act. The withholding of consent, therefore, must also be formal for it to be meaningful. But it is currently not possible to do this in the UK. Abstaining and ballot spoiling are ambiguous and informal acts that can never affect the result in any way, even if practised by a majority, so neither in any way provides this essential mechanism.
The only way to formally withhold consent at an election is by including an official None Of The Above (NOTA) option on ballot papers with formalised consequences for the result if a majority make use of it.
If this mechanism were in place, the very prospect of a party being beaten by more voters actively and visibly rejecting all that is on offer would force all parties to lift their game and compel them to represent more voters in the first place, organically cleaning up the whole process and levelling the playing field considerably. From there, the chances of further democratic reform towards PR would be greatly improved. Without NOTA in the first instance, how is PR or any other democratic reform ever going to occur? Seriously, how?! It can’t. Not in the current landscape. NOTA, by contrast, would become inevitable if enough people were calling for it as the democratic pre-requisite that it is.
For this reason, NOTA remains the ground zero of electoral reform upon which all other democratic reform could be built. Far from being a ‘cop out’, it is the next giant leap on the road to universal suffrage.
Even the Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) – now abolished by David Cameron – were beginning to understand and accept the significance of NOTA. Thanks to our lobbying and a sizeable positive response to its consultation on ‘voter engagement’, the PCRC felt compelled to recommend in its February 2015 report that the next government consult before May 2015 solely on inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers. This was due to the clear demand for it and the perceived positive impact that it would have on voter engagement.
Just because the PCRC is no more, there is no reason to give up on NOTA or any of its other recommendations. If anything, it is time to step up the fight. But we must be realistic and not waste our energies lobbying turkeys to vote for Christmas. For the reasons stated, NOTA is the achievable ‘square one’ for any and all democratic reform of the UK’s system of government.
Electoral reformists like the ERS continue to ignore this game changing, logical starting point for democratic reform at their peril – and to the detriment of us all.
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