On Saturday I took part in a very informal hustings at the Cerne Abbas brewery. What was really significant about this event was not the beer, nor the very small audience comprised mostly of supporters of the three candidates who attended (Lib Dem, Labour & myself), nor the rather cold semi-open air setting. It was the final comment of the organiser when thanking the candidates. Because all three of us get on well, and because we are largely in agreement on most issues, he asked if it was possible for us to job share. Now I know that this was a somewhat tongue in cheek comment, but it triggered some thoughts about how we could, even should, do politics differently.
Most importantly, we must have some form of proportional representation – the ‘first past the post’ system we have now is well and truly broken. One of the big themes in this election has been tactical voting. Voters feel unable to vote with their hearts to bring about change. Instead, many have openly said that they will hold their nose and vote for a certain candidate simply in the hope that by so doing they will prevent the Conservative candidate winning. I have also been opening asked at hustings to stand down for the same purpose. As I said in response to such a request last night, that is unfair, even undemocratic, in as much as it deprives Green Party supporters who do wish to vote with their hearts the opportunity to do so. No, what is needed is a system whereby if the Green Party (or any other minority party) has say 5% of the popular vote, that should translate into a Parliament comprised of 5% Green Party MPs.
This will not only ensure that all views are truly represented in Parliament, but will mean that Governments, because they will almost always need to be formed by coalitions, will be forced to seek consensus. I think this important for two reasons; reasons which are, in the main, not openly expressed or understood by politicians and voters alike. First, there are no definitive answers to the problems and issues we face. Anyone who claims that there are is fooling themselves. Like it or like it not, the world (and by that I mean both the natural world and the socio-economic world) is just too complex for such answers. Just because a certain solution appeared to work in the past is no guarantee that it will work now (for the simple reason that, by definition, the context has changed), but more importantly, many of the problems facing us now have never occurred before – we have no experience to draw upon.
Second, the world is inherently uncertainty. For reasons best explained by complexity science, the science of dynamic systems, not only is the precise outcome of any action impossible to predict (because it is impossible to factor in all the variables), because of various feedback loops, the magnitude of any difference made by one of these variables can be totally out of proportion to the magnitude of its input. I once heard Shirley Williams, one of the Labour MPs who broke away from the party to form the Social Democrats, say on the radio that in their hearts most politicians know this, but that they are in fear of admitting it because they believe that the public wants to hear politicians being certain. We really do need to end this deception.
All this will all mean that we will need to do politics differently in the future. Proportional Representation will rightly mean that multiple view-points are expressed in any discussion. Because of the two reasons explained above, this means that politician will need to actively listen to and understand these various view-points. It doesn’t mean that that have to agree to them, but it does mean that they need to rationally explain why they disagree, and be open to having these disagreements challenged in open debate. Politicians also need to understand the nature of evidence and how to evaluate it, together with an acceptance that this evidence will often show that their original decision was not the best one and that there is nothing wrong with admitting this. But most of all, it means that politicians need to accept that decisions can only be made through consensus.