Saturday, 16 April 2011

Why vote YES on May 5th?

I was an exception to the rule in terms of my interest in politics.  Young people generally don’t seem to share my fascination, and this is amplified even more so when considering people of ethnic heritage.  I have always put this down to the destructive nature of the First Past The Post (FPTP) political system which we have in this country.  I have been lucky, in my entire life I have always lived in “safe” Labour seats: Hackney, Tottenham, Derby and now Nottingham.  But what if I had lived in Kensington & Chelsea? 

I have been in favour of Proportional Representation (PR) since about 2005 when the General Election turnout plummeted to record depths.  I genuinely believe that an electoral system which banishes the concept of “safe seats” will engage the electorate far more and motivate more people to take an interest.  After all, it’s something that affects us all, whether we choose to vote or not.

This proposal for the AV system is not PR, it is not even close.  But it is fairer than FPTP, this is undeniable.  How on earth can we have a political system which allows for somebody who is rejected by as much as 70% of his/her constituency to represent them?  It’s incredible to think that we have allowed a system to be retained for so long.

What we should not be doing is retaining the existing system on the basis that the alternative does not satisfy all of the criticisms of FPTP.  This would be a huge mistake.  I accept that AV is complicated and at times comes across as more confusing than the Champions League first round draw.  However once one is able to grasp the basic notions of the concept, the argument for fairness is overriding.  It is not fair that elections in this country are normally decided by about 200,000 people in 100 of the marginal seats, while the other 500 seats making up the millions of other voters cast a vote which quite frankly is not worth the paper it is written on.  It is not fair that somebody in a constituency of about 30,000 registered voters can win with a majority of 1 vote and in a scenario where over two thirds of his/her constituency rejected their candidature unequivocally. 

I accept the argument that FPTP provides for strong governments, but dictatorships provide strong governments too, though I don’t see any of us campaigning for Gaddafi to go “on & on” in Libya.  This country desperately needs electoral reform.  AV should not be seen as the final solution, but instead as a gateway to debate.  Let us abolish FPTP, try AV for perhaps 1 or 2 elections.  In the meantime we can have an informed debate about the merits of the alternatives, including those of AV+ as proposed by Roy Jenkins as well PR.  Just because AV does not represent the utopia in terms of an answer for our need for reform, it does not mean that we should retain the status quo.

My dislike of the Conservative party is no hidden secret.  Well actually dislike is too polite a word. I hate Tories, I always have done. 

I think it was something that came about from growing up in two of the most economically deprived areas in terms of Hackney and Tottenham where I spent the first 21 years of my life.  I can still remember teachers at my school with their “Save ILEA” stickers, and although only 8 at the time, I was developing an unnatural intolerance for all things Tory.  Two years later, at the grand old age of 10, I attended a festival/demonstration at Ducketts Common in Turnpike Lane which was held to demonstrate opposition towards the Poll Tax.  I shall never forget the excitement and cheer which rang around the park when an effigy of Thatcher was introduced to place on top of a bonfire, and the cheers which rang around when I had aimed a petulant kick at this very same figure with a mask of the former Prime Minister.

Of course my understanding of politics in those days was very much in its infancy.  I was old enough to remember watching images on TV from anti-Poll Tax demonstrations, Hackney struck a chord with me because of my own personal connections, but the big one was that infamous gathering in Central London on 31st March 1990 as Trafalgar Square morphed into something from a war zone as protestors clashed with Police.  Even at a very young age, I was able to make the very justifiable connection between public fury and Tory policies. 

And I shall never forget that never to be forgotten morning when Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990 and witnessing the delight among so many.  It’s a day which I recall with the same fondness as some of my Arsenal memories; though admittedly with each passing season do become slightly hazier.

As I got older I was able to substantiate this dislike and my fascination with politics never waned.  I was able to understand the historical distrust from people like me who were of ethnic heritage, a fact of course that could be traced back to Smethwick 1964 and the disgusting election slogan about voting Liberal or Labour.  I understood for example that all the legislation which had been introduced to protect people like me and my family had been introduced by a Labour administration, the last of which being the Race Relations Act of 1976.

Nor either shall I ever forget waking up that morning to go College in May 1997 which was my first experience of a Labour Government.  I had been born almost exactly 12 months to the day after Callaghan was swept from power, so unfortunately I had very much been a child of Thatcher.  Its also quite amusing to recall my father’s observation that morning that while it was wonderful that 18 years of Conservative rule had come to an end, it was important to remember that Tony Blair was a different kind of Labour leader and would not provide the kind of policies which Labour administrations of old would have introduced without hesitation.  “Real” Labour, would be an appropriate description of what he had been referring to.

Yet for all the disappointment of the Blair years, and the sad demise of Gordon Brown which followed, I always knew that the alternative was unthinkable.   Riots, people dying on hospital trolleys, schools crumbling: just some of the kind of despicable achievements of the Tory administration which provided the backdrop to the first seventeen years of my life.  Labour was far from perfect between 1997 and 2010, but the alternative was unthinkable.  I don’t think the events of the first eleven months of this Government has been too far off that assessment, although to date there have been no race riots which inflicted such scars on so many communities, most notably Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and the similar scenes in Brixton. 

But its early days yet!

So against this backdrop of why I detest the dominant political force of the last 300 years, it should come as no surprise why I am passionately endorsing a YES vote on May 5th.  It’s well known that the Conservatives would suffer under the Alternative Vote (AV) system being proposed.

The Liberal Democrats will be the big winners of this reform and given what has happened in the last eleven months, I can understand why this may trouble some as to why I would endorse such a proposal.  Labour does benefit but not by nearly as much.  The big losers will be the Conservatives, and yes this should be an added fillet to inspire similar thinkers to myself to come out on May 5th and vote Yes.  Yet this goes beyond party politics and my own irrational bias.  This is about what is fair and what will inspire people to once again participate in our elections, especially amongst young people. 

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