Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Field's contribution is welcome, but he misses the obvious solution

Labour MP Frank Field has been addressing falling participation (PDF file) in UK politics and has turned to the US for inspiration. Field’s contention is that both government and parliament are capable of becoming more accountable and representative. His arguments on representation fall into 5 categories.

Firstly Field believes that voters should have a right to object to too limited a range of candidates. This would entail introducing a category “none of the above”. The second of Field’s suggestions would provide this with more teeth. He suggests that only candidates who achieve over 50% of the vote should be returned directly, otherwise a “play-off” between the top two candidates in the first round would be instigated.

Field also wishes to subject an increased number of public positions to a general vote. Initially this would extend to police chiefs and housing association bosses. Fourthly and more predictably he wants to see group representative politics becoming the basis for admission to the House of Lords.

These are an interesting set of ideas. Although it is hard to see what the French play-off system would do to increase democratic choice that is not also achievable by introducing the Single Transferable Vote. Both systems allow voters greater dexterity to express a spectrum of preference, but in my view STV is the more nuanced system.

In addition, although Field’s instinct to open up more areas of government to voter participation is at its origin a laudable one, is the way to encourage greater turn-outs and more engagement with politics, really to foster a dizzying plethora of various polls?

The most eye-catching proposal Field suggests is also open to this charge. He believes that a system of American style primaries, whereby the electorate become directly involved in parties’ selection processes are necessary. This process he contends would be particularly valuable in areas where parties have safe seats. Voters would have genuine and realistic input into selecting their representative.

Once again it is hard to fault the instinct which leads Field to this suggestion. He is formulating fresh and innovative ideas in an attempt to puzzle out the conundrums of voter apathy and unaccountable government. But a primary system to select a president, given blanket coverage by a rabid media and featuring political heavy hitters dripping with charisma and voter appeal is a very different process from selecting a candidate for a party for one Westminster seat.

Such a system may produce candidates who are popular locally, but would they be in tune with the policies of the parties for which they were standing? If the selection process were thrown open to supporters of all parties and none, would not the result be atypical candidates being selected from the minority party who were closer in politics to that of the majority? If so voter choice could effectively be curtailed rather than enhanced, given that a smaller proportion would involve themselves in the primary than in the actual Westminster election.

Nevertheless any ideas to increase engagement are welcome. This is a crucial debate, but it is perhaps the less headline grabbing issue of proportional representation and the Single Transferable Vote that should be seriously considered.

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