British electorate awaits international approval

2010-05-08 00:00

THE British general election is over and the fractious process of forming a new government has started. The African Union Electoral Monitoring Mission, however, has yet to declare the process “free and fair”.

The major sticking point is the patent unfairness of a system in which a party with a quarter of the votes — the Liberal Democrats — wins less than half that percentage of seats. Conversely, a party that wins barely a third of the votes — the Conservatives — might yet govern. Or how about the LD getting almost 6,5 million votes to Labour’s 8 million, but just 51 seats to Labour’s 237?

The head of South Africa’s monitoring group suggests that the British masses excluded from meaningful democratic participation should assemble to compile a Freedom Charter around the concept “the people shall govern”. South Africa would give “serious consideration” to allowing British political exiles to base themselves in South Africa.

Jokes aside, what a mess the “mother of all parliaments” finds herself in. The old dear must be dithering on the wrong side of senility to cause one of Her Majesty’s top diplomats to note scornfully that “British democracy is no better than Uzbekistan’s”.

Former ambassador Craig Murray lists among his gripes: “Royal Mail censorship of candidates’ electoral addresses, little real political choice for voters, widespread postal ballot-rigging and elections administered by partisan council officials in a corrupt political climate.”

Murray concludes: “Are British elections free and fair? If this were a foreign election I was observing, I have no doubt that my answer would be no.”

While Britain has yet to suffer the indignity of having international electoral monitors deciding whether it has met the requirements for genuine democracy, this election is likely to transform its long-established two-party nature. Electoral reform in the shape of some degree of proportional representation is likely, irrespective of whether the next government is a hasty coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats. Even if the Conservatives manage to govern, despite a parliamentary minority, the tide is running against unrepresentative government. Consider the statistics. Tony Blair was elected with a comfortable majority, although Labour received only 36% of the vote, representing 22% of those entitled to vote.

Such gross distortions of a nation’s democratic intentions inevitably must create arteriosclerosis in the body politic. Before this election, the UK government had changed only once since 1979, when Labour displaced the Conservatives in 1997.

The result is voter alienation and apathy. 2001’s turnout of 59% was the lowest since 1918. In 2005, despite the divisive Iraqi invasion, it was barely 61%. This time, turnout was higher because the supposedly resurgent Liberal Democrats offered the prospect of an end to the revolving-door arrangement between Labour and Conservatives.

Although the Lib Dems failed to convert enthusiasm into votes, they hold the balance of power. As importantly, there is a groundswell for electoral reform among the centre-left, despite Britain being a country where the venerated but dead hand of tradition often stifles change.

As the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens put it: “The inherent unfairness of the handicap placed on the third party has been exposed. A single-party government resting on less than 40% of the voters will struggle to reclaim political legitimacy … Britain will have to learn how to manage coalition politics.”

The flaws inherent to both South Africa’s pure proportional vote and Britain’s pure majoritarian system make obvious the need for reform. The Brits must of course do as they will, but what bliss it would be to wake up in South Africa after a general election to find that 10 African National Congress ministers had bitten the dust, as happened to Labour yesterday.

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