Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Magna Carta: a work still in progress? 

JUNE 19th is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Not the first, nor most important, nor most admirably unselfish, and certainly not the last of the battles to put legal restraint around centralised power, it has become, over time and in many parts of the world, a symbol and reference point for the rights of the governed. A little celebration is due.

It’s worth asking how well we live up to what Magna Carta represents. Historians, lawyers and politicians don’t always agree on what that is. So to celebrate, try your own definition. My starter for ten? “Magna Carta stands against a minority ruling in its own interests while excluding others.” 

Being among the world’s fortunate few inhabiting an elective democracy, we naturally ask “So what’s a minority?” – a question best examined at the familiar, local level. Lyme Regis, while no doubt a democracy, isn’t currently elective, so our closest example is West Dorset District Council.

97,731 votes across the district at the recent council election were shared like this: Conservative 45 per cent, Liberal Democrat 30 per cent, Green 13 per cent, Labour eight per cent, UKIP three per cent, independent two per cent. That looks like six differently-sized minorities.

What happened to those votes when they turned into councillors? Thirty Conservative councillors (71 per cent), 12 Liberal Democrats (29 per cent), none others. That looks like a hefty majority, with one minority, while four other groups – together embodying a quarter of all votes – are cast into outer darkness, sharing that gloomy region with 21,912 people, another 28 per cent of the electorate, who chose not to vote.

The council’s alchemy goes beyond turning six minorities into King John Conservatives faced by Baronial Lib Dems. Lest the latter re-enact June 1215, the magic majority is made exclusive by gathering power into a cabinet of seven Conservatives.

With any centralised control, those not in the centre feel excluded. Yet West Dorset’s cabinet firmly shuts out councillors representing over half the votes.  

This may please some local Conservative electors. On reflection, though, they might think, for example, of like-minded Londoners whose Conservative votes last year brought them nothing in Haringey (Labour 48, Lib Dem nine) or Islington (Labour 47, Green one). Some sympathy for such fellow voters? Perhaps, therefore, a little understanding for those friends and neighbours here who gave 55 per cent of votes to others than a Conservative candidate?

An energetic challenge to West Dorset’s cabinet system comes from the non-party-political Public First group, part of its campaign for local democracy. Of 501 attenders at its public meetings in Dorchester and Bridport earlier this year, just four voted against replacing the cabinet arrangement with the committee system used until 2007. This more democratic  structure would give all 42 councillors a role in policy-making. The official response so far has been the classic one: ignore the groundswell and don’t deal with the arguments. Perhaps some Barons-in-Arms are needed. 

West Dorset could, and should, scrap its cabinet tomorrow. But the deeper problem is our ‘winner takes all’ electoral system which, locally and nationally, strengthens the powerful and weakens the powerless.

Government should be for the good of all, not a vehicle for the wishes of the ‘winners’. Politics, Geoffrey Mann recently wrote in this paper, is “conversation and negotiation” rather than “dominance and control.” Replace ‘politics’ with ‘democracy’ or ‘government’ and he’s still correct. 

The general election results undermine “conversation and negotiation.” Post-election maps show swathes of Conservative and SNP territory, blobs of Labour strongholds, Lib Dem fingerholds, scatterings of Welsh and Irish interests, a solitary UKIP flag-bearer. 

Fractured nation?

These maps suggest a fractured nation. But people living in each part of the map incline, in differing proportions, to the values of all parties and none. Across the land we have more in common than the maps pretend. Government should foster what we share, not what separates us. 

Our new Conservative government has a majority of MPs, just as its West Dorset counterpart has a majority of councillors. But the voting patterns in both cases tell a subtler, more complicated story, one that heirs to Magna Carta should respect.

Unfortunately, politicians mostly behave as if the maps, not the votes, tell the truth. The district’s cabinet system is one symptom. Another is the rejoicing among many Conservatives that, unconstrained by coalition, they can forge ahead with a manifesto  supported by around 11.3 million people – just 37 per cent of the votes cast and 24 per cent of the 46.4 million eligible to vote. Ignoring minorities and disenchanting non-voters (28 per cent locally, 34 per cent nationally) damages social cohesion, whether in Dorset or nationally. Such ‘forging ahead’ will mean one thing: a real, not just a pictorial, fracturing of the United Kingdom – led, but not ended, by Scotland. 

Electing our representatives should do two things. It should enable us all, not just those in the 100 or so constituencies (out of 650) that aren’t ‘safe’ seats, to know that our vote counts. And it should produce fair, proportional government. Anyone valuing the continued unity of the kingdom should see in this the only way to stop it breaking up. Yet of those who argued against Scottish independence, both Conservative and Labour parties oppose a proportional system of election. That is astonishing logical confusion (or putting party before country).    

A recipe for chaos? The last century saw several capable minority and coalition governments; our recent coalition governed without falling over. Germany hasn’t done too badly with proportional representation and routine coalitions (plus national reunification along the way, while we carelessly contemplate separation). 

Nothing would get done? Not true, though government-by-negotiation might mercifully think more and do less. The Poll Tax and the Iraq War came from governments that didn’t stop long enough to listen or to think.

Listening and thinking in West Dorset needs its own Magna Carta. Public First is calling for a local referendum on the cabinet system, which by law must be held if five per cent of the district’s electorate sign the petition and the result is verified. Go, not to Runnymede, but to

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