Britain styles itself as a representative democracy; yet while Black and other minority ethnic (BME) communities account for 10% of the population just 26 of the 650 MPs that make up our House of Commons are from a BME background.
All the numbers point to a Parliament that’s suffering from a serious democratic deficit.
Our Parliament visibly lacks the legitimacy it needs to govern a diverse society such as ours. Fair representation means more than just ensuring that the number of BME MPs matches the BME population; it means making sure that our communities are represented at all the stages of the decision making process. After all, it’s a matter of legitimacy and justice.
One of the barriers which our communities have to overcome is First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system which is one of the worst for ensuring fair representation. And with a referendum on voting reform on the cards we have the chance for a real national debate on how our communities are served by politics and politicians.
What’s wrong with FPTP?
FPTP favours the status quo and discourages parties from selecting anything that doesn’t fit the ‘male, pale and stale’ formula.
Elections in the UK are won on a handful of marginal seats. Our communities have every reason to ask whether their vote will actually make a difference. But with such a large number of safe seats, our system actually makes it harder for new blood to break in. At the same time, FPTP both reduces the number of potential vacancies while encouraging parties to play it safe.
The style of campaigning this system rests on encourages empty point scoring and restricts meaningful debates on the real issues that matter.
A fairer electoral system means a more consensual style of politics and that means that we have a greater chance of getting the issues that affect Britain’s black communities on the agenda. A fairer voting system fosters a more consensual approach to politics where everyone’s voices have to be listened to. Indeed fairer systems also tend to have better levels of representation.
It’s also proven that people are more likely to vote when they can see people like them representing them. So a higher level of representation will result in a higher BME turnout. At the 2010 general election for example, we saw record levels of both voter registration and BME turnout, this can be explained by the fact that there was a record number of BME candidates and a record number returned to Westminster. This level of engagement can only be a good thing for our democracy.
Dealing with extremism
The threat of the far right tends to dominate discussion around voting reform in our community. The fundamental question behind electoral reform asks ‘what do you want from your politics?’ As far as I can see this is the very reason we should be engaging in this debate.
Crude forms of Proportional Representation (PR) had resulted in BNP representation in London and Brussels. This has been used to damn any improvement on the current electoral system for both Westminster and local government.
What we tend to overlook is that FPTP has already allowed extremists into our town halls. In places like Barking and Dagenham, Burnley and Bradford the majority of the electorate didn’t vote for the extremists and would have rather been represented by any other party. This has been possible because with FPTP, you only need one more vote than your next placed opponent to win, so extremists have been able to speak for communities on the basis of a one vote advantage. FPTP therefore, is an outdated system designed for a two party system which doesn’t exist now.
What we need is a more consensual system. For example, preferential systems like Alternative Voting (AV) give voters the chance to rank candidates in order of preference, which rewards democratic parties that can reach out to mainstream voters while penalising extremists. Writing recently about AV, the pollster Peter Kellner made a ‘modest proposal’ to bring AV to local elections to eliminate the BNP at a stroke.
Electoral reform has a real impact and offers real benefits for our communities. Fair votes, real choice and representative politics are possible so it’s time to join the debate.
By Jyoti Bhojani
Electoral Reform Society