Democracy barriers

13 May

English Democracy

Over on the British Democracy Forums Anthony Butcher has written regarding the democracy deficit within the current Electoral system.

“Aside from the disappointing electoral reforms that our new Liberal Conservative Government has so far promised, I have been impressed with the new partnership. As in 1997, David Cameron has managed to create the positive, refreshing start that Tony Blair conjured. I am just a little bit excited by it all.

We are hopefully witnessing a new age of cooperative, grown-up Government that will replace the head-to-head slanging matches and point-scoring that the public is increasingly turned off by. The people of Britain don’t care about tribal political loyalties any more; they just want the politicians to get on with the job and it looks like Cameron and Clegg have realised this.

But with this new attitude towards politics, isn’t it time the Tories re-evaluated their attitude towards our electoral system too?

It is a given that Conservatives believe in free markets. Start-ups with new ideas are essential for innovation, and in their manifesto the Tories promise to introduce ‘Work for Yourself, a new scheme to help unemployed would-be entrepreneurs start their own business by giving them access to a business mentor and start-up loans.’

But why is this entrepreneurial attitude limited to businesses? Is our political system so much less important? The barriers to success for new parties are considerable. Firstly, just standing in the General and European elections costs a fortune. New parties must expect to lose £500 for every candidate they stand in a General Election and have to pay £5000 for every region in the European elections.

Then there is the issue of publicity. Although every party receives a free leaflet drop for their candidates, they still have to pay for the printing, folding and delivery to the post office. For a single constituency, the cost alone can be in excess of £800 for a basic leaflet. The cost to cover the European regions is huge.

Then there is the biggest barrier of all – our electoral system. Even when parties have survived the challenges and built up a substantial base of support, they still can’t get MPs. Between them, UKIP, the Greens, the English Democrats and the BNP received 1.8 million votes, but just one MP.

If our electoral system was a marketplace, it would be the equivalent of forcing companies to open a shop in every single constituency and only allowing the sale of products in batches of 20,000 or more. The result is that most constituencies actually have a very limited selection of products, only one or two of which can ever be bought in reality… if 20,000 other people also want one.

Yet if we were to view political start-ups in the same way we view business start-ups, there would be a very different set of rules. Firstly, we would do everything we could to encourage new parties to be formed with new ideas and new ways of doing politics. We certainly wouldn’t tax them £500 for every candidate, while the big established parties pay nothing. In fact, we would scrap the ‘deposit’ (AKA The Small Parties Tax) for ten years (or altogether) and perhaps even match their start up funds pound-for-pound up to a limit.

For leaflet drops, wouldn’t it be better to have a single election brochure with a double page spread for every party standing in the constituency? Not only would this massively reduce the burden on the Post Office, it would ensure that all of our parties get an even playing field to start with and the electorate get a much better picture of what is on offer from a single source.

And what about political mentors? Starting up a new party is fraught with unforeseen pitfalls, from accepting illegal donations to creating a robust constitution. A political mentor with experience of party start-ups could answer questions, advise on best practice and provide templates for the party structure and documents.

Once those start-up parties started to show some electoral promise they could be wooed by the bigger parties and deals made – just as big businesses acquire smaller ones. This would allow those political entrepreneurs access to much larger resources and have a chance of implementing their ideas. Political alliances and mergers are too rare in Britain; we need more fluidity.

Finally, we would adopt a free-market-style electoral system that allows voters to support the parties that they want, from any constituency. There are several systems that allow the retention of constituency MPs but also allow for a top-up of MPs, some of whom would be from the smaller parties, including AV+, Additional Member, Total Representation and Regional Top-Up.

So the big question is: do the Conservatives (and the Lib Dems) have the nerve to practice what they preach for businesses in the political world too? Do they have the vision to allow new ideas, new people and new parties to thrive or are they content to continue their three-party cartel in Westminster?”

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One Response to “Democracy barriers”

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