Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Subtle Message of the UK Constitution

House of Commons Chamber - elevated viewThe UK constitution and electoral system is a bit of a mystery to those who haven't grown up here. Nothing much is written down. It is just sort of understood by all without any real discussion. It is, perhaps, the last remnant of an Anglo Saxon society which wasn't big on writing things down.

And the reason is that if you write things down it tends to ossify and get elevated to the status of a religious text handed down by the elder gods. You get endless debates about what words mean, and whole academic texts about interpretation.

Additionally the UK constitution represents the spirit of compromise and consensus building that can easily reflect change over time. Society is about that and both the UK constitution and the way our courts work avoids the divisiveness of other systems while still providing absolute certainty when things are finally decided.

And so it is with our parliamentary system. Our parliament is not the horseshoe so beloved across the world. It has two sides. On the left sits the government and on the right sits the opposition.

That is reflected in the voting system where every MP represents a particular part of the country (a constituency) and is elected on a simple ballot. The famous 'first past the post'.

This system has been described as archaic and there is endless calls for reform. However I think those that call for this are not listening to the subtle messages implied within the UK constitution.

It's pretty clear from the layout of parliament and the structure of the voting system that what the constitution wants to see is just two names on the ballot paper. In other words in the UK you need to do your coalition building before the election. Of course we nominally allow more than two names on the ballot, but in reality the constitution is suggesting it is a good idea to get down to two. And if you refuse to compromise then you, and all your supporters, will be punished by being made completely and utterly irrelevant. All the support is just a waste of time and your opponents win instead.

Forcing coalition building ahead of an election provides certainty for the voter. The electorate knows exactly what they are going to get when they cast their vote, and again if the electorate casts their vote for anybody other than the top two they have wasted their time going to the voting booth. They didn't listen or understand the message of the constitution.

Now admittedly the top two swap around from time to time and the political energies of all the parties are expended trying to climb to the top of the pile. These days it tends to be in a divisive manner because the political class seems to have lost the art of compromise.

The alternative is some sort of PR arrangement. The weakness of PR, of course, is that coalitions happen after the election. So you vote against tuition fees and end up with a pointless and unwanted referendum on voting change instead.

Political types love PR because it is good for them. It means they can hide their own particular hobby horse in a list of populist measures and then drop the populist measures due to 'negotiations'.

Actual ordinary voters just want a simple choice between two viable governments, and want to know what they're actually going to get after the election. So if you want 'voting reform' that actually helps the citizen, then it should be a way of ensuring at the actual vote there are only two candidates left on the ballot paper in every constituency.

Beyond that the political parties need to rediscover the art of compromise. We don't want a dozen different political fragments. We need those fragments to coalesce around a couple of platforms before the election. Platforms that are actual genuine alternatives.

So in this political cycle it is time for the Greens and the Liberals to consider their positions and whether it is time to merge with the two main parties. (The Greens should green up Labour. Not really sure where the Liberals sit any more). It's probably time for the Blairite wing of the Labour party to cross the floor and start pulling the Tories back to the left. The SNP need to be accepted as part of the opposition. And of course it is time for UKIP to disband and rejoin the Tory party.

Go and learn how to do coalition building before the election. And give the people the choice of Government and Opposition as the constitution suggests - however subtly that may be.