Monday, 7 March 2011

Oppression and the implementation of democracy

This BBC article highlights the likely effects on North East councils of making business rates go to the local council that raised them.

As with other "local taxation" initiatives, it of course ignores the fact that it's the economically depressed areas, with high unemployment and very few rich residents, which have the most need for public services. Meanwhile, the local areas with numerous wealthy families, which could raise a lot of money from local taxation ... don't need to. They can fund all the necessary local services on a much smaller budget anyway.

It occurs to me that this sort of regional class-based neglect - and other areas of oppression where a less-privileged group is geographically separated from a more-privileged group - is in part an artifact of our current way of electing MPs to Parliament.

If you look at an electoral map of the North East region, it's almost entirely red. A couple of large rural seats to the north of the region - Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hexham - are safe Lib Dem and Conservative seats. The rest of the seats were uniformly Labour from 1997 to 2005, with Stockton South (a politically very divided seat) moving back to the Conservatives in 2010, and Redcar being taken over by the Lib Dems after the closure of the Corus steel plant, and the resulting loss of 1,600 jobs.

Under a constituency-based electoral system - the current First Past The Post, or the proposed Alternative Vote - this is basically unchangeable. At the height of recent Labour unpopularity, they lost two out of their usual 27 seats. The reorganisation of seats as part of the reduction in the number of MPs will, if anything, further reinforce their hold.

It's not surprising that Labour do well up here, of course - the region consists of lots of ex-mining villages, ex-industrial towns, and ex-employed people - and suffered heavily in the 1980s under Thatcher's Conservative government.

Nevertheless, in the 2010 election, after excluding the two atypical rural seats, Labour only got just over 45% of the votes. The Lib Dems and Conservatives each got almost exactly half that (22.5%) - but only a twenty-fifth of the number of seats.

This ends up, I think, being very bad for the region as a whole, and North-East Labour should be pushing for a PR system despite - indeed because of - the side effect of reducing their seats1.

That's a startling conclusion, so let's step through the logic more slowly.

The aim of politics, in theory, is about making sure that your preferred policies, whatever they are, become reality. As I pointed out in my earlier Principles and Power post, this doesn't actually require having a majority in government (or, indeed, any MPs at all)

So, the aim of the North-East Labour party should be to get Labour policies implemented, and to get the best result for the North-East.

Surely, then, the best way to do this is to have lots of Labour MPs from the North-East in Parliament? Well, no. Not always. If the government is Labour-controlled, then this works quite well. But more than half the time, it isn't. Various of the local MPs have been raising the consequences of the current government policy on the North-East in Parliament, to no avail. They're doing what they can, but it's not making a difference in the short term.

The Conservatives (and to a lesser extent the Lib Dems), on the other hand, have basically no electoral incentive to help the North East.

In any situation where Labour are not right at the bottom of the polls, they will win 27 of the 29 North-East seats (and the other two are not the same ex-industrial landscape anyway). The boundary changes, proposed to reduce Labour's advantage under FPTP, will if anything make it even easier for them up here.

So, the political cost of passing policies that are unpleasant to the North-East is basically nil. They can't lose seats that way. Nor can they really win seats by passing better policies - even at the height of Labour unpopularity they were nowhere near in almost every seat.

Under Proportional Representation - assuming no major changes in voting intention for the first election or two - it would be somewhat different. On the current results, Labour would get around 14 of the 27 seats, the Lib Dems and Conservatives 5 or 6 each, and the remaining ones would go to either minor parties, or an extra seat to each of the big three, depending on exactly how the seats were calculated.

The crucial thing, however, is that the last few seats for each side would be rather precarious. A mere 10,000 votes - across the whole region of over a million voters - changing from Labour to Conservative, would give the Conservatives an extra seat. Conversely, losing a similar amount would give Labour an extra seat. A larger swing would be worth even more.

The very real risk of losing two or three North-East MPs as a consequence of anti-Northern policies might make the Conservatives rather less inclined to try them (and their own precariously-seated MPs might well be leading the internal campaign for an alternative).

By making lost votes actually harm the parties (and yes, lost votes would also harm Labour far more than they currently do), the intentional harm caused to the region by successive Conservative (or mostly-Conservative) governments could be avoided.

(And, indeed, by making the Labour party no longer able to take the votes of the North-East completely for granted, it might be more inclined to pass policies specifically to strengthen the North-East, proposed by the local Labour MPs)

And so, back to the counter-intuitive conclusion - Labour's policies in the North-East would actually be more likely to happen if they had fewer North-East MPs and a more responsive voting system.

The way in which politicians are elected makes a big difference, especially when geographical segregation applies. The intricacies of voting systems are not necessarily the most interesting topic, but (as with more obvious areas of democracy such as disenfranchisement) they can make a major difference to how politics happens, and whose interests are represented by it.

1 They would of course get some of their loss back in areas of the country which are similarly safely-Conservative, but would nevertheless almost certainly lose seats overall. With a mindset that views seats gained rather than policies implemented as its measure of success, this would never be considered.