Make votes matter! A personal perspective

I left London in 1973-74. I left a place and society that I saw as fragile and dysfunctional; a sort of fools’ paradise’. During my two years as a policeman in the West End, I questioned so much of what I saw around me, aided and abetted by E. F. Schumacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, Rachel Carson and many, many others. I started to revolve in an alternative world, awakened, as I saw it, by the madness of ‘the rat race’; living in an infinite way in a finite world – a rubbish economic system; capitalism; materialist ambition; poor food and farming practices … and so on.

The short story is that by early 1975 I had pitched up in rural Somerset and started to live as a sort-of ‘goodlifer’ – a bit of a wildman of the Quantock Hills – for the next 25 years. Before me was wardenship of a Youth Hostel, dabbling in farming and then nearly 40 years in professional horticulture.

I soon realised that I was in a safe Conservative seat: that of Tom King, of Defence and Northern Ireland ministership. My political awareness wasn’t particularly developed, but I quickly understood that voting anything other than Tory was a complete waste of time and effort. I learnt a bit about our voting system [how did we do that before modern technology?] and was suitably unimpressed. At the first Thatcher election in 1979, I spoilt my ballot paper by writing ‘Ecology Party’ across it. The Ecology Party was the forerunner of the Green Party and there were a few candidates around the country, but certainly not in Tom King’s constituency!

A seminal point for me was obtaining a copy of the 1976 Hansard Society Commission Report on Electoral Reform in the early 80s. [The author has an online copy if readers are interested.] The conclusions of this august commission were unequivocal: the UK needs reform to a proportional representation (PR) system. 

Well that was great, I thought, not realising that this was just going to be utterly ignored by the Conservative/Labour duopoly. I needed more understanding of why this was so. At the second Thatcher election, in 1983, I arranged a one-to-one meeting with Tom King in our village as he did a whistle-stop tour of his constituency. I had started to become quite aware of the arguments around the issue. My only engagement with him was about how undemocratic our voting system was. He came up with the ‘usual’ defence (as I now understand it) of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and I knew enough to counter his assertions. His ‘minders’ soon realised that I wasn’t a Conservative voter, just a bit of a nuisance, and they steered him away from me. My reflection, I remember at the time, was that he had no coherent justification for FPTP. 

I remember writing to him afterwards, somewhat arrogantly saying that I promised to let him know when the country actually adopted PR, in case he missed it! Maybe I’ll still be able to do that! He’s 87 now and in the Lords…keep going Mr King, I want to fulfil my promise!

Now came a long hiatus in my journey with PR. Marriage in 1981, three children and lots of work were, of course, all-consuming. I also think I acknowledged that this corrupt voting system was totally entrenched and was moving nowhere anytime soon. I used to “blah, blah” about it here and there, and came to a realisation that in most people’s understanding of politics this didn’t register that much. And the Conservative ‘safe seat’ carried on being just that and a pointless exercise in voting anything other than Tory. (To be totally cross-party about this, the exact same thing happens in safe Labour seats, of course.)

Fast-forward to late 2017 and partial retirement. I just knew that I had to get more involved, while I had a bit of breath and ‘oomph’ left in me. A group called Make Votes Matter (campaigning for PR) had started up after the appallingly disproportionate 2015 general election result: an overall majority in Parliament for the Tories with just 37 per cent of the vote. (I should point out that FPTP works to the benefit of both major parties. Labour had an overall majority with only 35 per cent of the vote in 2005.) This was alongside many other shocking statistics, e.g. 15 per cent of the vote getting just 1.5 per cent representation in Parliament.

In autumn 2017, I bumped into a friend in town (Totnes: I’d moved here in 1999) and we both agreed that we’d have a go at starting an MVM Group in Totnes.

Since then, we have built up a thriving group in Totnes – albeit it is currently ‘becalmed’ substantially by the Covid crisis. We had lots to do with Sarah Wollaston, our last MP. I like to think that we just might have had some small influence on her and her political manoeuvrings. 

We’ve had a couple of public meetings in town, trying to raise awareness of what is actually quite a complex issue. My own level of understanding around the democratic deficit and iniquities of where we are has increased massively and I have regularly attended MVM Alliance meetings in the House of Commons…now on zoom. I am now an MVM-approved speaker on the subject.

As a group we have held quite a number of stalls under the MVM banner and, hopefully, we shall be able to do more when face-to-face life loosens up.

For me, it’s about raising awareness, particularly in constituency Labour parties (CLPs; rather a long story here, but the Labour Party is the key to voting reform. The only two parties in favour of FPTP are those that hold the duopoly (no real surprise there!): the Tories and Labour. If Labour embraces PR then the whole ‘house of cards’ falls in. It is in this area that a huge amount of MVM’s efforts are directed.

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I see the adoption of PR not as a panacea, but as a foot in the door which can enable other things to happen. I continually look around me and see what I consider to be, such dysfunctionality in so many aspects of our society, and I come up with the realisation that if we had a PR system, it wouldn’t be like this; it would be better for all: fairer, more equal, less polarised, less adversarial. A much healthier society all round.

There are so many facts and statistics all pointing in the pro-PR direction (very few, if any, the other way, I might add), but I’d just like to leave you with a couple, from either end of my life so far.

In the late 40s after the war (ok, so a few years before I was born!) we Brits were part of the  rebuilding of Germany in all its aspects. As part of the political renewal in that country, we installed our FPTP voting system, which failedand then we imposed a PR system (a mixed member system, used so successfully to this day) in order “to promote stable government and discourage extremist parties”. That’s the way to do it then!

Now, in the extended Europe of 43 countries, 40 use PR voting. France uses a two-tier run-off system – arguably better than FPTP – and the UK lines up with Belarus at the bottom of the democratic pile! You just couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!

Until we all ‘stamp and shout’ louder, nothing much will happen, certainly not quickly. And I want this to happen in my lifetime! My advice would be to: campaign; make a noise; join MVM; start a local group (I’ll help if I can); get informed; write to your MP, get others to do the same…hold them to account. To me, being quietly accepting of the ongoing outrageousness and indeed danger of FPTP just isn’t an option. I don’t want to be cheated out of my vote or robbed of proper representation in Parliament for much longer.

I hope you don’t either.