Sunday 22 December 2019

Election reflections: remember Charter 88?

Who now remembers Charter 88, founded in 1988, when the Tories had been in power, like today, for 9 years, having won three general elections? More than 85,000 people signed its demands for a written constitution, an elected second chamber, and a freedom of information act among other things.

But the most important demand in my view was proportional representation for the House of Commons. The existing system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), means British governments are formed by parties that most people have voted against. If you want to know why so many people are disillusioned with politics and feel their vote doesn’t matter, here surely is the main reason.

I became quite active in Charter 88 locally. Tories were almost universally hostile, but Labour nodded in our direction. I was even at a Charter 88 party at which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown put in an appearance. Blink twice, though, and you would have missed them.

We had meetings with local Labour people, and, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been, I was taken aback at how tribal and hostile they were towards proportional representation. ‘How will we ever win an election under that system?’ seemed to be the main preoccupation.

In 1997, after 19 years in the wilderness, Labour finally won power, but although Blair had spoken fair words to the LibDems, in 13 years, the party did nothing to reform the electoral system. For 18 of the 31 years since Charter 88 was founded, Labour have been out of power, and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be coming back any time soon, particularly as in the past they have been so dependent on winning seats in Scotland.

Labour’s view still seems to be: FPTP means for most of the time the UK gets Tory governments that make our voters suffer, but that’s a price worth paying so that every so often we can get a go at being the government without winning a majority of votes. What a shame! If the party had thought a bit more about the interests of the nation, there would have been no Brexit and no Boris Johnson as prime minister.

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