An Unfit System

Whatever internal democratic reforms the Labour Party is going to make, nothing fundamental will change unless the present electoral system and parliamentary institutions are swept away, argues ERNIE JACQUES.


The Great Stumble Forward’, by Will Brown, sums up nicely Ed Miliband’s response to the Falkirk debacle where cooking the books and buying votes was the order of the day as different factions tried to circumvent one member one vote to parachute their preferred candidates into a safe parliamentary seat.My Vote pic

While I agree with Will’s assessment of the proposed reforms, I think we should acknowledge that nothing much is going to improve without fundamental change to the UK’s broken political system, which remains firmly rooted in the past. While nominally democratic, it is a system where big money, patronage and the interests of the establishment all too often hold sway over the will and interests of the wider electorate and UK citizens.

We have a first past the post electoral system in which 650 constituencies delivered 400 safe seats in the 2010 general election, and two-thirds of successful MPs (433) were elected with less than 50% of the vote, many with less than 40%. Many constituencies last changed hands in the 1960s while some ‘super safe seats’ have remained one-party fiefdoms since Queen Victoria was on the throne. To my mind, this is highly problematic and suggests our problems are a tad wider than the internal democracy of the Labour Party.

Jon Trickett MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office (and a former ILPer), represents the West Yorkshire constituency of Hemsworth which, by the time the returning officer announces his re-election in 2015, will have been held by Labour for 97 years.

In his ILP days, Jon was a personal friend who I held in high regard. When I was unemployed back in the 1980s (a victim of Thatcherism) he assisted me back into work after nearly eight years of unemployment, an act of kindness for which I will always be grateful. Although I have lost contact with Jon, I imagine he remains a thoroughly decent and highly competent MP and wannabe Labour minister. I’m sure he remains firmly rooted to the Labour movement and the people he represents in the former mining communities that make up the Hemsworth constituency.

Yet, just like Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Ed Balls, and thousands of other Labour MPs, he was parachuted in to the constituency and foisted on local members by the Labour Party’s well-oiled machine.

In making these points then, then, I am not having a pop at Labour MPs per se, but I am mindful that since the dawn of British parliamentary democracy, elected representatives have played the system and been persuaded to accept establishment mores in support of maintaining the status quo, parliamentary protocols, traditions, rituals and conservatism with a small ‘c’.

Ridiculous rituals

It is hugely ironic that the politicians who routinely sermonise and bully working people into accepting change, to become more productive and to embrace new technology and ways of working, are stubbornly resistant to change when it comes to their own place of work. They cling (like naughty children) to antediluvian parliamentary rituals, the language, gowns, wigs and voting systems epitomised by the colourful but ridiculous play-acting that takes place when they’re appointing a new speaker of the Commons or during the State Opening of Parliament.

state opening parliamentOn top of that, we still tolerate an unelected House of Lords made up of hereditary peers, Church of England bishops, appointed placemen and women, establishment figures and non-controversial luminaries often rewarded for bankrolling our self-serving Tory, Liberal and Labour politicians or for fawning before our Royal Family.

The devolved assembles in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have confirmed that there is no need for antiquated, colloquial homilies, such as, ‘My Right Honourable Gentlemen & Lady’, nor for laborious, division-bell voting with the results announced by such nonsense as: “The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it, I believe the Ayes to the right have it.”

The sad thing about all this is that most new MPs go native very quickly and lap up these narcissistic rituals in a relatively short space of time.

Whatever internal democratic reforms the Labour Party might make, nothing fundamental is going to improve unless the present electoral system and such parliamentary institutions are swept away as a necessary prerequisite to wholesale (but peaceful), economic, social and political change. To me, the current first past the post electoral system and the Westminster model of governance are part of the problem.

Indeed, despite the difficulties associated with Scotland’s independence vote, and the SNP manifesto, given the option of self-determination and a chance to turn away from a political system that is self-serving and undemocratic, then I think a ‘Yes’ vote would be a really positive outcome.

Is it too revolutionary, in this day and age, to suggest we should campaign for our elected representatives and decision-making procedures to be devolved locally, to be as near to the people as possible, or to suggest that democracy might be better served if, between general elections, controversial measures are approved by the electorate via periodic referendums using cheap and ultra-speedy electronic voting?

If this leads to a proliferation of new parties at parliamentary and local level then so much the better.

While I am sure there are many Labour MPs, councillors, trade unionists and ordinary members throughout the UK who sincerely want change, and a more balanced, fair, inclusive society, none of this is likely to be achieved under the present parliamentary and electoral system, which seems to be unfit for purpose.

For this reason I believe Ed Miliband’s One Nation philosophy is dead in the water unless the Labour Party can acknowledge past mistakes, turn its back on those who advocate unregulated or lightly-regulated markets, and ignore the special pleading of the city, the establishment, multinational companies, and all those who live abroad off the backs of UK workers and consumers, salt their money in tax heavens and whose primary concern is to maximise profits.

None of this can be achieved under the present parliamentary and electoral system, which is undemocratic both in practice and outcome.


You can read ‘The Great Stumble Forward’, by Will Brown, here.



  1. […] also: ‘An Unfit System’ by Ernie […]

  2. Harry Barnes
    18 March 2014

    I accept Ernie’s earlier concern about “Westminster and the European Union with their bureaucratic procedures, protocols and opaque democracy”, but I don’t see how Scottish independence would tackle such wide problems. It would, at best, work only for Scotland. But then I suspect that Scotland would soon develop its own forms of bureaucratic protocols and opaque democracy, unless somehow an independent Scotland became an example for us all.

    What is needed is a programme to tackle Westminster and EU problems. Part of doing this is to democratise both the UK and the EU. It would help if Labour would adopt a programme that appealed to the interests of the modern version of its traditional supporters. Yet turnout at general elections (adding the six and a half million who have not registered to vote) is a democratic disaster and is a question for the political parties, rather then the non-voters. Labour-held seats even have a turnout 7.2% below that of Tory-held seats.

    We need to turn our attention to what Labour’s programme will be at the next European and UK elections. Why is Labour not joining in to push the Manifesto for the European Elections which the Party of European Socialism adopted in Rome on 1st March? After all Labour is a member of this body. This Manifesto is not perfect, but it is better than anything that Labour is likely to come up with. (It can be found via my own blog).

    On the policy for the 2015 General Election, we have until June 13th to push for improvements in the eight consultative documents which can be found on Labour’s web site. Links to these are provided elsewhere on the ILP website. There is a short spell to press on these matters. What about working for ILP perspectives on (a) the consultative documents and (b) the PSE Manifesto (plus the little bits and pieces on Europe which can be found in the consultative documents)?

    Local Labour Parties can also pick up on these matters. Four meetings to get our teeth into these have been set up in my own local area.

  3. Graham Wildridge
    17 March 2014


    I apologise for the delay in returning to the discussion. But I am now back.

    A positive argument that you have for YES to Scottish Independence is that we have seen limited gains for working people in north Britain with respect to no imposition of bedroom tax, no fees for Scots attending Scottish universities, and some (unspecified) community support programmes. All of these limited (and so they are!) gains have been achieved under a devolved Scottish Parliament. I presume that you think that much better things will come with an independent Scottish Parliament. But why will this be so? Much more could have been done under the existing governance arrangements had the Scottish Parliament wanted. In particular, SNP always claim that they’d be so much “nicer” if only Westminster would allow. That is SNP deception.

    However, much more of your opinion piece is negative. You list the deplorable features of Parliament at Westminster. And you point your finger at Ed Balls’ economic “thinking”, linked as it is now to One Nation Labour, that may scrape an election victory in 2015 but crash to failure thereafter.

    There seems a certain depressing inevitability about a possible Miliband Labour government. Can it be that your support for YES is just a hope that the table will be so changed that the dice will roll in a most unexpected way?

    I have a feeling that NO will prevail (just) in the referendum on 18th September. I think there will be a lot of bitterness at the result. I’d like to believe that trade unions and socialists (even those currently arguing YES) could heal that wound.

  4. Harry Barnes
    5 March 2014

    Graham; Our Dronfield Discussion Meeting has a meeting on Sunday evening with a Labour Euro Candidate. I hope to discover if Labour has any policies on the European Union. It seems that Labour’s policies are to be part of its “One Nation” programme! Isolationism seems to be a strange formula for drawing up a joint programme with our socialist comrades in Europe. I look forward to your response and will also join in the debate.

  5. Graham Wildridge
    3 March 2014


    I want you to know that I have seen your reply and read it respectfully.
    There’s a lot in there.
    I shall return to the debate when I have organised my response.
    And I hope that Harry joins back into the discussion.

    Graham W

  6. Ernest Jacques
    3 March 2014

    Graham & Harry,

    On the issue of the Scottish independence vote, I differ from you both on what a Yes vote might involve.

    I say might because I agree with your assessment of SNP policy and I have no appetite for its support for the monarchy, NATO, privatisation, austerity and its capitalist ethos, etc. A Yes vote has many imponderables attached insofar as the project could go horrible pear-shaped both for the Scottish people and for the working class on both sides of the border, especially so if the Labour Party’s doomsday scenario of permanent Tory majority in the Westminster parliament was the outcome. And while a Yes vote will be seen as an Alex Salmond triumph this does not necessarily mean that the SNP is destined to win the first (independence) general election. That will depend on the Scottish people and, as always, the quality of the opposition. But having said that, it is worth noting that in contrast to the rest of the UK, there has been some real, if limited, gains for working people vis-à-vis the bedroom tax, free university education and community support programmes.

    Again, in contrast to Westminster and the European Union with their bureaucratic procedures, protocols and opaque democracy, Scottish home rule (15 years on) has delivered some real, if limited gains, with a parliament that is modern, efficient and much more accessible to the people, with a petitions committee which considers every submission by the electorate. Don’t you think it worthwhile having elected representatives who live and work in the real world without all the stupid rituals, fawning, flattery and big money corruption and gongs, associated with the Westminster parliament? A system which to my mind, mirrors the Labour Party in being an imperfect and a highly problematic democracy, where money and careerism rules and where local people and constituents are all to often used as cynical voting fodder.

    And when it comes to austerity Ed Balls, who in 2004 was parachuted into my old constituency (the former West Yorkshire mining community of Normantion), has signalled no change, a policy commitment fulsomely endorsed by that well known socialist Peter Mandelson and his shadow cabinet colleagues.

    This is the same Ed Balls who, along with Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, was largely responsibility for the shape of our unbalanced economy, for failing to regulate the financial services sector, and for designing the infamous Quantitative Easing bale-out of our banks following the 2008 debt crisis caused by unbelievable corporate greed, corruption and fraud which went unpunished. QE, the magic fix for a busted system, which has been neatly shifted onto the backs of millions of innocent and decent unemployed and vulnerable people and the working poor, who are paying an unfair and heavy price for world-wide Ponzi scheme that these bankers and politicians initiated and support. Now that really is black magic.

    But, having said that, a lot will depend on whether or not you believe that the Labour Party can ever be an agent for fundamental social change and by what we mean when we (rightly) talk about the long haul? And from my perspective, talk about One Nation Labour and a cost of living crisis (no matter how well meaning) will amount to nothing unless the leadership is able to countenance rapid change and turn its back on the neoliberal horror story and present a vision for what an inclusive, good society might look like. That of course is a subject matter for a weighty book and many discussions about what is to be done.

    But when it comes to the status quo we do know that over the past 35 years we have witnessed growing inequality and social exclusion under the leadership of Tory, Labour and Liberal administrations who then move on to the welcoming arms of the city, big money and the unelected House of Lords. The same Labour Party promised the British people and working class that: “Things can only get better”.

    And Alistair Darling (leader of the No – Better Together – campaign) is already enjoying the fruits of the Westminster gravy train. Last year, on top of his MP’s pay and generous expenses he picked up £172.550 for 15 speaking engagement which included one payday of £30,000, courtesy of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan Chase.

    With those inducements, support for the status-quo is understandable, but is no reason for the rest of us to be persuaded by Alistair Darling’s wholly negative No campaign based on support for our present Parliamentary system. After all, we, the 95% of Scottish and UK citizens, have paid dearly for the decisions taken by bankers, the political elite and senior Westminster politicians.

    A Yes vote for national self-determination, for devolving power closer to the people, is something all democrats and socialists could and should support.

  7. Graham Wildridge
    3 March 2014

    Comrade Ernie,

    I too urgently want to have a more fair (and predistribution – I think I know what you mean) economy and the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from everywhere with the resources thus released handed to productive industry, economic regeneration, skills training, job creation and on much-needed social housing.

    But how can it be that these desired goals are more achievable with an Independent Scotland?

    Scottish Independence will NOT lead to the end of austerity, privatisation, and the abolition of capitalist economic crises. It is idealistic and wishful thinking that substitutes constitutional change for real social change.

    And I can’t agree with you that YES is not a vote for the SNP and Alex Salmond. It is! And what is their programme? I’ve read that it is: 1. Retain the monarchy 2. Stick with an unreformed European Union. 3. Stay in NATO 4. Keep the Bank of England’s £. 5. Lower corporation tax. 6. Keep the restrictions of trade union rights.

    I think Harry has got it right with his pointer to a progressive federalism within the British Isles and the European Union. This is not such a “left field” proposition. I am sure that I have read that Carwyn Jones, the leader of the Welsh Labour Party, has called for a constitutional convention to explore a federation.

  8. Ernest Jacques
    23 February 2014

    Hi Graham,

    While there is an awful lot about the European Union that I love and embrace, its ‘Kafkaesque’ system of governance, democracy and accountability (democratic deficit) is hardly impressive or attractive.

    Having said that, I too would like the ILP to discuss and debate the pros and cons of an independent Scotland and from my perspective the No campaign led by Labour Party grandee, Alistair Darling, is all about maintaining the status quo, unbalanced Britain, the Westminster gravy train, banging-the-drum, waving the Union Jack, jingoistic nationalism and jam tomorrow promises. As such, it is wholly negative and unappealing.

    If a Yes vote resulted in a more fair and predistribution economy and in the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish territory, ‘great’, I say, especially if these billions were spent on productive industry, economic regeneration, skills training, job creation and on much-needed social houses.

    In making these points it is important to emphasise that a Yes vote is definitely not a vote for Alex Salmond and the SNP. And it is for these reasons that this North Yorkshire Sassenach, ILPer and democratic socialist is urging his son and daughter-in-law, who live in the Bonny Scotland, to vote YES.

  9. Harry Barnes
    21 February 2014

    Ernie and Graham: On Scotland, I favour a form of maximum devolution (devo max) which is still more popular in Scotland than the two options on offer in the coming referendum. But to get it will require the truimph of a “no” vote, then a political struggle to get to devo max. A pattern of devo max could then be produced which would enable Scotland to be a federal unit of the UK.

    This would operate the best if Wales, Northern Ireland and England (or its regions) were all also given the same federal status. The main problems about such a full move is that it might stimulate unrest in Northern Ireland by producing a new constitutional settlement which seemed to block the road for some to a united Ireland. Then in England we would really need a few federal units, as a full English region by itself would swamp the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish units and distort the operations of the central UK Parliament and Government. Yet we have not developed really strong regional identities in England to match nationalist sentiments in Scotland and Wales.

    We already have a whole set of different electoral systems operating at different levels in the UK. It would make sense to agree to settle on a common system for all and help to make voting a more rational activity.

    Like Graham, I support the notion of a reformed European Union. We need a democratic Europe with key and clearly defined economic and social responsibilities. Again a federal Europe makes sense. There is nothing wrong with having a three-tier federal structure, involving European, UK (and other nations) and regional structures.

    At the moment the UK has over 6 million people missing from electoral registers and if these non-registrations are added into the equation, it has had electoral turnouts of under 60% over the last three general elections. Yet all turnouts in the preceding 21 General Elections (back to 1922) were all over 70%. Up to 84% in 1950.

    A lot needs to be done to stimulate an interest in all forms of elections. Arguments over radical constitutional reforms could be part of that “all” – as having more local decisions can become a key democratic demand. Social and economic demands clearly need to be added to the equation, especially by the Labour Movement. There is plenty of scope. The turnout in Labour seats in 2010 was 7.2% below that in Conservative seats and 6.7% below that in Lib Dem seats.

    It would indeed be valuable if the ILP declared its position on Scottish independence as Graham suggests. Its last stronghold when a separate political party was in Glasgow. Working out its position on the type of issues I have raised would also be important. With almost only a week to go, it would also be nice to know if it has a declared line on the Collins Report.

  10. Graham Wildridge
    20 February 2014

    I agree with nearly everything that Ernie has written.

    But I think Ernie is being too polite to Will Brown about the Collins’ Review. Will suggests amendments to the Review. But that possibility has been purposefully removed by the Labour Party Leadership (the NEC voted 28-2 in favour of Collins). In any case the Review largely addresses only the procedural mechanisms for electing Party Leader and Deputy, conduct of contested selections for Parliamentary Candidates, and (bizarrely) closed Primary for London Mayor. Any and all of these matters are irrelevant to Ernie’s challenge to “An Unfit System”.

    And I do believe that Ernie has got it wrong on Scottish Independence YES. I can’t envisage how an Independent Scotland will better the interests on either side of the border of working class communities. As socialists we should be heading in the opposite direction – a reformed European Union.

    It is quite late in the day, but should not the ILP declare itself on the issue of Scottish Independence ?

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