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Power to the people

Patrick-Vernon1Proportional representation and open primaries would reinvigorate politics, says Patrick Vernon

Our political democratic system is now at a crossroads which requires radical reform and not simply tinkering around the edges to eliminate transgressions of MPs and Peers in the future over their expenses.

There is now a mood in the air for change and the Government along with all the political parties needs to respond with radical proposals and not simply a knee jerk reaction.

People-power has forced a number of MPs to resign and a number of websites and blogs have been created to help the public scrutinise further and challenge the role of MPs.

All this  highlights the deficit in the current structure political structure which allows safe seats, jobs for life, MPs to be elected no matter how well they serve their constituency, however much work they do, whatever their capacity to listen to and respond to their electorate.

What we need is a 21st century political system for people of the 21st century, so that Parliament reflects the whole range of our multi-faith, multicultural, multi-lingual society.

PR has the potential of opening up politics to new voices and making politicians more accountable

Parliament needs to be in tune with the concerns of real people with real life experiences and not just simply a political and media class that talks to itself and reinforces the status quo.

We need to see representatives who themselves are in contact with and know from their own experience what the many, not the few, are thinking and  particularly those in the black community who from the time of the Windrush have religiously voted in local and general elections with blind faith that their interests would be valued and respected.

However during the last 10–15 years there has been a complete sea change in how black people see politics, particularly second and third generation black people.

This is reflected in lower voter turnout and a higher degree of cynicism and scepticism about all politicians.  Younger black people are not religiously tied to the main parties and openly support minority parties such as the Greens, the Christian Democratic Party and even UKIP and the BNP.

My own experience of being a Councillor in Hackney since 2006 is that I often have to work twice as hard to convince black people to vote or to become engaged in the political process.

I believe with the introduction of Proportional Representation will force the mainstream parties to think about having a diversity of candidates will provide more opportunity for assemblies and Parliament to reflect our multicultural society.

If we had a voting referendum on the same day as the next general election it would give electors a chance to vote for a better form of politics

Alternatively, other parties can be formed which encourage all voices to be listened to. Black politics can potentially flourish under this system, whether it is mainstream or black led.

This would provide greater impetus for Black politicians to play a greater leadership role in local, regional and national government.
PR has the potential of opening up politics to new voices and making politicians more accountable through competitive elections.

It gives a range of campaigning organisations better opportunities to influence political debates and influence the development of political manifestoes representing a wide range of interests.

PR would eliminate safe seats and would force MPs to take more account of the concerns of their electorates. All local political parties would have something to fight for in elections, making politics more vibrant at a local level.

Now that we have the BNP elected to the European Parliament, as with the Greater London Assembly we must have a politics which engages with every one and not where parties take their safe seats for granted and appeal to a narrower and narrower section of the voters who are floating voters in the marginal constituencies of middle England.

They are mostly influenced by the Daily Mail and do not experience the vibrant positives of multicultural areas and  are not aware of the historical contribution of black and Asian people who have contributed during the two world wars and the reconstruction of the country after the aftermath of World War 2.

Elections in which most votes count and parties have an incentive to campaign everywhere encourage more participation in the political process.

It could give a more effective voice to those politicians who espouse issues such as race equality and improving public services at a community level.

It could mean having a parliament that is empowered to hold the executive to account and a Commons that reflects the pluralism and cultural diversity in all aspects of British politics as has been discussed in the Speaker’s Conference.

The debate about a new electoral system needs to be a proper debate and an informed and educative one unlike the current debates which been taking place during the European elections.

Organisations such as Electoral Reform Society of which I am a member provides information on how proportional representation would work and details how this implemented currently in Britain and internationally.

It is being suggested, by Alan Johnson and John Denham and others that we have a referendum to let the people decide their own voting system to coincide with the next General Election.

Other ideas also need to be considered such as changes in the selection of candidates and perhaps the use of ‘primaries’  which helped Barack Obama be elected as Democratic Presidential candidate and then US President.  We can have elections that black candidates can win on merit, ability and their track record.

Since the creation of the Black Sections in the Labour Party twenty five years ago, which we now call BAME Labour, our primary demand is for the use of short lists to target Parliamentary seats for black and Asian candidates.

Such short lists could prove a useful and important mechanism in the short term to address historical inequalities and structural barriers of Black representation.

With a PR system and transparent selection processes such a short list/quota system would not be required for black candidates or for women because parties which chose only white men would be easy to spot and rejected by fair-minded voters.

If we had a voting referendum on the same day as the next general election it would give electors a chance to vote for a better form of politics and force all political parties to be clear about their intentions to give us the democratic reform, renewal and accountability we deserve from our politicians.

Please contact your local MP and find out their views on PR and ask them to support the Early Day Motion in Parliament which has been proposed by John Grogan MP to support a referendum on PR where people can have a separate vote to give their view on changing the voting system at the heart of our democracy.

Patrick Vernon is a Labour Councillor in Hackney; a member of BAME Labour Executive Committee; founder of Every Generation Media and creator of 100 Great Black Britons; and producer and co-director of A Charmed Life film about the life of Jamaican Airmen Eddie Noble http://www.everygeneration.co.uk

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