How not to let the system outvote you

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
6 May 2010

So today is ‘E’ Day. The 2010 General Election campaign has been more volatile and interesting than anyone could have predicted, and the outcome now sits on a knife-edge. Will one of the two big (some of us would say ‘monopoly’) parties take advantage of the unfairness of the non-proportional voting system and gain an outright majority? Or will there be a hung parliament – and if so, of what composition?

It could go either way. The evidence still favours no overall majority, which throws the cards for reform and change up in the air. But there is also some indication of a late swing to the Tories and away from the Liberal Democrats – whose surge has been the largest single factor in changing the landscape. Since so much depends upon the marginals and other variables in a very close contest, no one knows for sure. It will be a long night and morning.

The message from those of us who support genuine political and democratic change in Britain is, ‘please don’t let the system win again’. Ekklesia’s partners Power 2010 and the hung parliament campaign Hang ’Em are both urging people to vote for reforming candidates and to try to maximise the chances of a reforming, balanced parliament.

This is not a partisan issue, but one of making our political structures much more responsive to the claims of people and planet in a world that continues to be riven with injustice and imperilled by the dominance of narrow ‘majority’ interests – including, it must be said, a reactionary core to the Conservative Party which, in spite of David Cameron’s ‘detoxification’ programme, still wishes to pursue punitive welfare and anti-immigration policies, and which favours the rich at the expense of everyone else in taxation and economic policy.

Throughout the election campaign, Ekklesia has sought to examine critically the claims of all the parties, but especially the ‘big players’, from the perspective of an underlying "ethics election" - one in which those pushed to the margins have mostly been ignored.

Our recent report on a fresh approach to migration was precisely about challenging an often inhuman ‘mainstream consensus’ which fails altogether to address the real questions of forced movement, financial instability, and population and environmental sustainability.

We have also highlighted the voices of disabled people, the under-representation of women, a ‘green new deal’ approach to the economy, the different political landscape of Scotland, Wales, northern Ireland and the English regions – and contrasting approaches to the role of religion and belief in the political process.

The latter has included a factual critique of false estimates in the media, and among politicians, about a supposed ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ vote as something to be claimed and colonised. We have also published what we hope is a thoughtful and irenic, though incisively critical, perspective on the Westminster Declaration by socially conservative Christians.

Note that term ‘socially conservative Christians’. The media have talked about ‘evangelicals’. But Ekklesia is pleased to number many evangelicals among our supporters and contributors, and we know that it is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that all evangelicals subscribe to narrow and partial understandings of political issues, or that they all propose to legislate in favour of their own interests and against others, given the chance.

What of the role of the historic churches? The denominations and ecumenical bodies have been involved, as usual, in helping to host hundreds of community hustings for the parliamentary candidates. The number of hustings occurring in non-religious buildings and contexts is increasing, too. The spread of plural, civic participation continues to change and broaden in post-Christendom Britain. Happily so.

Largely, the churches have failed to recognise this or respond to it. On 27 April a London hustings which involved Power 2010 (in which Ekklesia is a partner), Faithworks and other civic and religious groups together (challenging the ridiculous ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’ game) took place. It at least tried to use a more imaginative, levelling and participatory process.

Likewise, the UK Citizens event this week, which brought the large party leaders into direct contact with ordinary people and communities, became seen as the unofficial fourth ‘leaders debate’ – and was much more lively than the ‘real’, tightly controlled TV ones. Among other things, it let Gordon Brown off the leash to talk about issues he is passionate about.

Unfortunately, the Greens were not on the platform, just as the SNP and Plaid were denied a direct stake in the main TV debates. ‘The system’, which is based on the power of the powerful, is continually resistant to real change and willing to co-opt those it wishes to flatter.

But nevertheless, both these high profile events showed how a fresh approach is both possible and necessary. Sadly, most local church-based hustings followed ‘the usual’ format. And the messages coming out of the traditional denominations were often worthy but unimaginative. The usual appeals for goodness and virtue on policy issues (but little if any discussion about how church investments and other practices could participate more in the change advocated on others), shopping lists of aspirations, and more appeals than ever before to Christians to realise that voting is a “duty”, a “privilege” and an “obligation.”

Yes, but what about the case for small parties, conscientious abstention, independents, a fair voting system, political reform, non-party and movement-based politics, and the whole panoply of cooperative, civic initiatives towards "changing politics – for good", as Power 2010 puts it? With one or two honourable exceptions (the Salvation Army came on board with Power 2010) there was silence on these. And even the Sally Army hustings had just the 'big three' leaders - again.

Never mind. Whatever the outcome of the election, the demographics of power in Britain has been shaken up and will continue to invite pressure for reform and re-energising in the coming weeks. It is not too late for the churches and others to ‘get with the programme’, to work out how they can become more involved in an equal (not privileged) way alongside others, and to start to make more of a difference – from the edges, rather than the centre, which is what post-Christendom is all about.

Meanwhile, voters today (whether people of religious faith, or simply people of non-religious ‘good faith’) have a great opportunity to signal that they do not intend to let the system outvote them. By achieving more votes for smaller (non-racist, non-xenophobic) parties, candidates from the main ones who back real reform, independents, and those whose victory will stop ‘the big two’ from maintaining their overall monopoly – in these ways the pressure for change can be maintained. That includes PR. Because the outcome of this election is likely to be massively unfair –with millions of votes still ‘wasted’, and a huge disjuncture between the popular vote and the allocation of seats.

Tomorrow, therefore, we and others will unveil two post-election initiatives: ‘Take Back Parliament’, which will be launched on the web as soon as the result is known, and the Demo for Democracy in central London (permission to be outside parliament has just been refused by the police) on Saturday 8 May.

This election is not the end, it is only the beginning of the push for a new kind of politics with new mechanisms, new priorities, new possibilities… and a new civic dimension in which people do not divide on ‘religion’ or belief, but find fresh ways of cooperating from the grassroots against unaccountable power.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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