Against a background of white buildings, a black sign reads “abuse of power comes as no surprise” in blue paint.
Credit: Samantha Sophia via Unsplash

For the millionth time we ask: why do British politics have to be this way?

By Ethan Marshall

Yet another scandal has shown what our country’s politicians can get away with.

When exactly is a punishment not a punishment? No, this isn’t a line from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It; it’s a question that has, in equal parts, hilariously and tragically dominated our country’s politics. Since 2016, British politics has been akin to a scuffle in a Mcdonalds’ soft play area. Flailing arms, meaningless proclamations, snappy slogans in place of policy, some choice harsh words, and a confused general public viewing the whole affair. Yet this event is something new, something fresh from somewhere between the realms of personal political disenfranchisement and a Spitting Image script. Yet it brings me some joy that despite all the university deadlines currently plaguing us as students, I can smile, just slightly, at what a fictional Malcolm Tucker’s reaction would have been to this. The shock which turns into anger, into swearing, into a painfully degrading exercise in political spin; “yes he broke the rules but he didn’t actually really break the rules, look it’s complicated”. The whole affair is so far from serious you might find yourself looking around for a reality TV show crew, cameras out ready to film your reaction and broadcast it to the world with you none the wiser. Unfortunately, this is real life. The case I’m hinting at? The punishment and ensuing scandal of Conservative MP Owen Paterson. 

“Since 2016, British politics has been akin to a scuffle in a Mcdonalds’ soft play area.”

In short, Owen Paterson didn’t simply break the political lobbying standards, he shattered them into pieces. He was paid by two companies, Randox and Lynn, and did not declare it, all the while trying to push their interests via his political position. This included using his parliamentary office to set up meetings between company representatives and relevant ministers. The Parliamentary Standards Committee, which included the Conservative members, agreed that Paterson broke the rules and should be suspended for thirty days from parliament. Paterson, naturally, disagreed so vehemently, or maybe lobbied so effectively, that the Government decided to hold a vote on scrapping the Standards Committee. Effectively changing the rules so the honourable member was no longer bound by petty things like public standards or, you know, ethical norms. Is it wrong to have invested interests in competition with your role as a representative of your constituency? The Conservatives at best seem to be nebulous on this matter and, at worst, do not care. The arguments from certain Conservative MPs have amounted to claiming that the £81,932 salary isn’t enough, the second jobs they hold are necessary to sustain their lifestyles and the lifestyles of their children. From the party who thought austerity was a workable fiscal policy, who recently cut universal credit by £20, and which has tolerated a cabinet minister stating on live television, “If you haven’t got the money you shouldn’t have children”. Shockingly, public understanding and sympathy have been hard to come across. 

“Owen Paterson didn’t simply break the political lobbying standards, he shattered them into pieces.”

The Paterson affair, despite the best wishes of Conservatives, isn’t a storm in a teacup story. It has brought the nature of second jobs and the sleaziness of current parliamentary politics into focus. It’s not a great look for any political party and opposition parties have rightfully seized upon this opportunity to force parliamentary votes and deliver some very entertaining jibes at PMQs. Yet, they are missing a trick. This is an opportunity to start creating a case for one of the most influential yet politically unsexy discussions that is dying to be had in British politics: electoral reform. Our collective political memory is painfully short, so the halcyon days of the Liberal Democrats monumentally blowing their own foot off, not even getting to tuition fees, by settling for a referendum on electoral reform that was ill thought out, under-resourced and lacking Conservative support. The Liberal Democrats went ahead as they believed the Conservatives would not be involved in actively campaigning against the “alternative vote” referendum as they actually were.  Unbelievably, in politics they were lied to. The referendum was conclusive, the “No” side comprehensively won. 67 percent versus 32 percent, allowing the Conservatives to easily shelf any potential electoral reform for a generation. However, the damage this referendum has perpetuated is harrowing. 

The erosion in public trust, the disenfranchisement, the angry notions of feeling that votes don’t matter are all the symptoms of a chronic ailment of British democracy. Unfortunately, under the first past the post some votes don’t matter. For example, take the constituency of one Owen Paterson as a case in point, North Shropshire. This seat has only ever returned a Conservative MP. Since 1835, a Conservative MP has represented the people of North Shropshire, so has there always been an overwhelming sustained majority of Conservative voters in North Shropshire? No, there have been three general elections in which the Conservatives have won that seat with less than half the vote. If it was a referendum, they would have lost it. Yet, because First Past the Post only values having the largest slice of an incredibly divided vote, the Conservatives have been able to represent a seat even though a majority of voters in that seat. Is this fair? In this situation, where is the political authority and sovereignty being derived? It isn’t the “will of the people”, it’s the “will of some of the people, most people didn’t actually vote for that candidate but don’t get a choice”. The second version looks less attractive on a declaration of rights and it shouldn’t be accepted as a cardinal truth of British politics. 

“The erosion in public trust, the disenfranchisement, the angry notions of feeling that votes don’t matter are all the symptoms of a chronic ailment of British democracy.”

The strongest argument in favour of FPTP is that it produces strong governments with clear “democratic” mandates is a fallacy that even national five modern studies students can reason around. So why can’t our politicians do so? Britain is getting increasingly used to political crises and large divisive referendums by political parties that aren’t voted for by a clean majority of the population. Some of Britain’s most pressing issues have political origins. Wealth inequality, poverty, homelessness, the lacking standards in public life and a strange comfort with post-truth in our public discourse. These are the results of our democratic system. It doesn’t feel like political parties are aware of this issue or cynically like FPTP as it guarantees them seats they wouldn’t otherwise win. If political parties like Labour are serious about reforming Britain, truly empowering all citizens irregardless of skin colour, class, economic prospects then I have a suggestion. Push electoral reform for what it is, the strengthening of our democracy. If not it’s hard to see how we can improve the quality of our politics without it. The concept of a ‘safe seat’ is a democratic affront and a political party which is comfortable with the notion should ask themselves: are they, in their heart of hearts, actually advocates for democracy? Or just what suits them? 


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