The winner takes it all

6 May

Agnetha is sad

Agnetha is sad because her vote in the Newham council election will be wasted

If history is any guide, on 22 May the Labour party in Newham will win about 65% of the vote and 100% of the seats on the council.

Sir Robin and his band of merry men (and those closest to him are all men) will celebrate a great victory and carry on exactly as before.

The 35% who didn’t vote Labour will again have no voice and no representation. Sir Robin will face no tough questions, no challenge and no scrutiny from anyone who doesn’t already agree with him.

Does it really have to be this way?

As long ago as 1913 the Independent Labour Party, forerunner of today’s Labour party, argued that

“No system of election can be satisfactory which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their strength.”

In January the Electoral Reform Society published Towards One Nation – the Labour Case for Electoral Reform [link downloads a PDF]. The report argues that by tolerating electoral deserts – places like Newham where there are no Tories, Lib Dems or Greens; as well as places where Labour itself has no voice – the party “is colluding in alienating people from political activity.”

Parties only have limited resources of finance and activism, and people understandably grow tired of throwing their money, time and effort at a hopeless cause. The more committed activists may be willing to travel to campaign in a marginal seat, but most people prefer to be active in their own community. 

In Newham, I doubt this argument holds much sway. Who cares if the opposition are demoralised and frustrated? All the better for us! 

But Sir Robin should beware.

Effectively locking a proportion of voters out of representation is bad not only on democratic grounds, but because the withering of opposition does not produce more wholesome politics.

Although Newham has so far been resistant to the far-right, you only need to look to what happened in Barking and Dagenham in 2006 to see the consequences of a complacent and neglectful Labour party with no traditional opposition voices: the election of 12 BNP councillors.

There is also the matter of good governance. As executive mayor Sir Robin has free rein over almost every significant area of policy. All that keeps him in check is oversight and scrutiny from councillors. But where all of those councillors come from the same party, what hope is there for genuine accountability? We know from experience the answer is ‘none.’ 

For 2014 we are stuck with ‘first past the post’ and the continuation of a one-party state. But a Labour government elected in 2015 could change things. And there is hopeful precedent:

Whenever the opportunity has arisen, Labour has recognised the importance of choosing fairer voting systems over First Past the Post. The first Blair government made a positive choice to endow new democratic institutions – both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly – with electoral systems considerably fairer than Westminster’s. And in 2007 a Labour-led coalition introduced the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local elections in Scotland.

Local government in England struggles with a huge democratic deficit: fewer than half the electorate bothers to vote;  councils that should be the closest to and most engaged political institution with their communities seem remote; and there is little space for new and interesting voices.

The system is ripe for democratic reform and in Newham the need is urgent.

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One Response to “The winner takes it all”

  1. Birdman May 6, 2014 at 12:12 #

    As I have posted here and on other blogs, the situation is made worse by a system that allows overly generous allowances to be used to finance the local Labour Party. Such a precept on allowances by a political party happens across the country, with the Lib Dems taking 10%. In Newham the situation is made worse by the Mayor giving large special responsibility allowances, often for non jobs, which means even more money goes into the Mayor campaign coffer and allows the two constituency Labour Parties in Newham the funds to employ a full time official. When you add in the misuse of the Newham Mag as a propaganda mouthpiece it is little wonder that other political parties can’t get a look in. I have to say it is difficult for the Tories anyway as the policies of Robin Wales seem to be to the right of them. They must be secretly very happy for Newham Labour to do their dirty work. Until the electoral system and the rules on funding are changed I cannot see newham ever changing.

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