Could PR be the solution to political apathy?

Russell Brand has once again caused controversy when as guest editor of The New Statesman he called on people not to bother voting. He argues that voting won’t bring about change. He goes on to say that the current system doesn’t work for most people and voting only gives endorsement to that system. Whether you agree with Brand or not, it is undeniable that there has been a decline in political participation, with all the main parties seeing a steep decline in membership and a steady fall in the number of people voting in elections.

One of the reasons people don’t see the point of voting is the perception that there are few ideological differences between the three main parties parties, especially since the beginnings of New Labour in 1994. Many people see the parties as being interchangeable with all three following similar pro market policies, supporting privatisation, and carrying out similar policies in health and education. This has left many people feeling that is doesn’t matter who wins in an election as neither of the main parties offers an alternative.

Politicians themselves have contributed much to this political apathy. The expenses scandal brought a perception of all politicians being greedy and corrupt. Parliament appears less representative of the population as a whole, as the background of people entering parliament has narrowed with many front bench positions dominated by middle class Oxbridge educated people who have been career politicians and find it difficult to connect with the lives of ordinary people. Another factor that creates a disconnection between politicians and the electorate is that the parties receive much of their finances from big donations by wealthy businessmen creating the impressions that politicians are often representing the interests of big business rather than ordinary people.

This disillusionment with the political process was further exacerbated at the last general election, where the Liberal Democrats attracted a large amount of support by promising a new way of doing politics, only to break many of their election pledges once they were in power. This current disillusionment with the political process once again highlights the need for proportional representation. Whilst not on the political agenda after the defeat of Alternative Vote referendum in 2011 the argument for a proper system of proportional representation is still a strong one, and it could be an important factor in persuading people to vote. It would also offer a greater range of voices and ideas, and encourage people to take part in the political process.

The problems with the current first-past-the-post-system is that many people live in a constituency that is either a safe Labour or Tory seat. This gives people little incentive to vote as they feel it will make little difference to the outcome. The existence of safe seats also allows constituent MPs to be less concerned with the need of their electorate. Safe seats also means the parties are mainly focused on appealing to the small number of voters who live in marginal seats and who actually decide the outcome of elections.

PR would change this and encourage more people to vote as their vote would count towards the final outcome. PR would change the political landscape as it would give more seats to smaller parties such as the Greens or UKIP. This would increase the range of voices and opinions in parliament and allow parliament to greater reflect the plurality of opinion within the electorate. Also, by creating a situation where government would be more often formed through coalitions it would give more power to smaller parties, breaking the three main parties monopolistic hold on power and introducing more diverse government polices.

The only problem with this solution is that to be implemented it would need to be agreed on by the two main parties, Labour or Conservative. They have both proved unwilling to do so as they are the ones who stand to lose most from PR, but as people continue to disengage from main stream politics it is a solution that they may find they will need to turn to to restore legitimacy to their power.