Regardless of the tub-thumping declaration made by David Cameron this past week, about the 2015 general election being a straightforward choice between himself and Ed Miliband for Prime Minister, in truth there are so many caveats, conditions and addendums that might be added to his statement, as to make it little more than wishful thinking, or a special pleading on his part. Such is the parlous state of British politics today, with the main three legacy parties reviled and distrusted by the electorate in fairly equal measure, it remains to be seen whether any of the mainstream parties will end up with a big enough parliamentary majority to be able to form a workable national government.
Although Mr Cameron is right, in the sense that only he or Mr Miliband is likely to become the Prime Minister in May next year, it's perhaps also worth remembering that that particular office of state has its own specific limitations, in that the holder is only ever the leader of the government of the day and thereby little more than the main political and public representative of the United Kingdom to the outside world. Ultimately real political power, as much as it can exist, given our membership of the highly unrepresentative European Union, lies with the elected members of the Commons, who in turn rely on the support and sponsorship of the general public, or at least those millions who choose to exercise their franchise by turning out to vote at the various national elections.
But of course therein lies the major problem with our own electoral system. Our politicians, their parties, their leaderships, in fact their entire constructs are often so despised, distrusted and disliked by so many within the wider electorate that it is often questionable as to whether or not the government in office can ever truly regard themselves as being representative of the country as a whole, when they are regularly elected into office on fairly minor voter turnouts. It seems extremely odd that any political party can claim to be the legitimate voice of the people when they are able to take office having only achieved 30-40% of the popular vote, meaning that some 60-70% of the electorate either voted for someone else, or didn't bother casting their ballot at all. As if to prove the point, the present Prime Ministerial incumbent, David Cameron, only holds that high office by virtue of his Conservative Party having attracted 10.7m votes out of a national total of 45.6m, or 23.4% of the total popular vote. For their part, Mr Cameron's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, garnered a total public vote of 6.8m, which is equivalent to 14.9% of the total votes available at the general election in 2010. The two parties having agreed to work together in government, purportedly for the common good, this means that with a combined total vote of 17.5m, or 38.4% of the available vote, the Tory/Liberal Democrat subsequently coalition was formed, even though 61.6% of the UK population had voted for other parties, or hadn't bothered to vote at all.
Quite clearly then, where one single political party, or even two in coalition, are unable to meet the basic criteria of a public majority, which would generally be 50% and above, there will always remain a question as to the democratic legitimacy of any government that cannot achieve that figure. And of course that takes no account of specific regional differences that question that legitimacy even further, as is obviously the case for the Conservative Party in Scotland, where its political legacy still remains fairly poisonous, decades after the hated poll tax and large scale de-industrialisation of the country's major manufacturing centres were first implemented by the London-based Tory administrations.
As to whether there is a way to resolve this question of democratic legitimacy remains open, although the proposal to introduce a form of proportional representation in the UK, put forward by the Liberal Democrats doesn't seem to have enjoyed much public support, possibly because of the party actually proposing the idea and that it didn't go far enough. Regardless of the reasons for that particular failure though, increasingly it is becoming evident that our current and long established First Past The Post electoral system (FPTP) is not sustainable in the long term, simply because the system itself is not conducive to a democratic outcome, as it takes not account of a majority view. Any result that falls short of the 50% plus criteria (something that the governing coalition has insisted on for Trade Union strike ballots) will always be open to question and criticism, simply because anything less is not an irrefutable majority. How the country is run and managed is far more vital and important than a foot, horse or car race, so to run them along the same sort of lines, or to suggest that they are similar types of competitions, is patently absurd. After all, it's also worth recalling that in most sporting competitions those coming second, third, or even those who participate get something for their efforts, often in the form of prize money, while in politics those coming second, third, etc. get absolutely nothing for their troubles and neither do their supporters.
As it is the 8.6m people who voted for the Labour Party at the last General Election, despite being some 18.9% of the total electorate, nearly one in five people, simply got their MP's, whilst the smaller parties including the likes of the Greens, Plaid, Respect, SNP, UUP and UKIP, along with their multitudes of supporters barely got a handful of MP's and little in the way of real political representation for their specific party views.
Whether or not some form of proportional representation will ever be introduced to UK national politics remains to be seen, but given that both Conservative and Labour parties would undoubtedly suffer as a result of it, would likely indicate that both parties would be resistant to any such change to the current UK electoral system. That being the case then it is almost certain that significant numbers of potential UK voters will continue to deliberately avoid exercising their franchise at both local and national elections, ostensibly because they cannot see the value in voting for parties that they consider to be unrepresentative, out of touch, or even in some cases inherently corrupt. According to some estimates up to 35% of eligible British voters, accounting for some 12m people chose not to cast their ballot in the last general election in 2010, more than voted for any of the individual political parties that were standing for election. Not only is this a shocking indictment of our electoral system that a full third of the voting population could simply choose to excuse themselves from their civic duty, but also that so many of our citizens felt so angry or indifferent to the whole electoral process that they purposefully decided not to participate, even though the outcome will doubtless affect nearly every aspect of their everyday lives.
Research on the subject of non-voting in the UK would appear to indicate that there are any number of reasons why people choose not to participate in the electoral process, including 19% of people who simply couldn't be bothered, 15% who found voting inconvenient, 13% who distrusted politicians generally, 10% who were either ill or who had suffered a bereavement, 9% who didn't like the choices on offer, 4% who didn't receive a polling card, 4% who believed that all politicians were self-serving, 4% who believed that voting didn't really make any difference, 3% who lacked specific information on the various parties, 3% who didn't like the choices on offer, 2% who were on holiday, 2% who didn't vote for religious reasons, 2% who were so undecided that they couldn't choose, 1% who believed that the outcome was already certain, 1% who felt that their favoured party couldn't win anyway, 1% refused to vote as a protest measure, 1% who were too busy, 1% who didn't know how to vote; and 1% simply forgot to vote on election day.
Taking the three largest reasons for people failing to vote, those who couldn't be bothered, those who found it inconvenient and those who distrusted politicians generally, this accounts for approximately 47% of the 12m eligible voters who failed to exercise their franchise in 2010 alone. It is precisely these sorts of voters who need to be encouraged to exercise their rights, if any future UK government is to claim any form of electoral legitimacy, or to avoid the sort of questionable mandate that the current Conservative coalition has been accused of having. Quite how the authorities can successfully manage to overcome voter apathy, unreasonable expectations and basic distrust is unclear, but one would imagine that increased knowledge and education about our national systems of governance, introducing alternative methods of voting and offering greater public oversight of politicians and their behaviour might just help encourage more people to take a greater interest in politics generally.
Unfortunately, given that our country's traditional electoral system is primarily founded on a tribally based and adversarial system of competing political ideologies, where a lack of both common sense and common ground exists, the likelihood of the major parties actually agreeing to campaign, let alone govern, for the common good of all the people, would seem to be a forlorn hope at best. Consequently, the tiresome and generally unhelpful "Punch & Judy" politics that we have all lived with for the past few decades; and that turns so many people off politics completely, so that they deliberately choose not to vote, not to participate, will almost certainly continue well into the future, to the detriment of our democracy.
Perhaps though, as is sometimes the case, broken systems often provide their own solution to the problems that affect and hinder them. For far too long our political system has been blocked by the increasingly centrist policies of the two major parties, resulting from both Labour and Conservative parties essentially chasing the votes of the same unaligned voters in the centre of the political spectrum, the squeezed middle, as they are commonly called. However, given that this group of citizens only represents a very small minority of the 45m people who are entitled to vote, it is hardly a surprise that the remaining tens of millions, both affiliated and unaffiliated are becoming increasingly frustrated by the major political parties overlooking and ignoring their needs, their demands, their plight; and as a result are looking elsewhere to offer their electoral support.
With concerns such as the economy, immigration, employment, education and healthcare being on everyone's minds; and with both Labour and the Conservatives failing to offer any comprehensive, long term solutions to such vital issues, it is hardly surprising that large numbers of the electorate are beginning to look elsewhere for answers to the nation's many socio-economic problems. Bearing in mind that between them both Conservative and Labour parties have governed our country for the past seven decades or more and between them have been the chief architects of Britain's cultural, industrial and social demise, so to expect either one of them to suddenly find a workably effective solution that will solve the national malaise that has beset our country in recent years, would be akin to finding money trees growing at the bottom of your garden. It simply isn't going to happen.
For far too long we have chosen to elect politicians who couldn't balance a household budget, let alone the finances of one of the world's leading economies. Can you imagine a housewife working to a budget, choosing to pay her neighbours bills, while her own children starved? Well, isn't that exactly what we're doing with Foreign Aid? Borrowing money from the markets, at a rate of interest, in order to give it away to foreign countries who just happen to be poorer than we are, even those like India who have their own space program, or like Pakistan, which has its own nuclear arms program! And just why are we giving £13bn away? Is it because it's vital to each and every recipient nation, or is to help create a political legacy for the British Prime Minister who initiated the 0.7% of GDP figure, the Tory leader David Cameron?
Our schools, hospitals, roads and armed forces have all been left short of money and yet successive governments have chosen to spend billions on administrative money pits, the Quangos, which seem to serve little purpose but to make more work for themselves and the industries that they purportedly oversee. Wouldn't their costs be much better used if they were abolished and the monies pumped back into the vital services themselves, for more and better schools, hospitals, roads or armed forces? If you believe that railways are little more than 19th century technologies in a 21st century country, why would anyone look to invest anything between £50-80bn in a new rail line, when upgrading existing railway infrastructure could be done far more cheaply and achieve the same sort of outcomes? Why would anyone join an international trade bloc of 500 m people, at a cost of billions of pounds every year, when you could just as easily re-establish historic trading links with countries totalling two billion people, which would cost you absolutely nothing at all?
According to various think tanks, which are generally staffed by proper economists and experts in virtually every field you might think to name, government waste in the UK, both at a local and national level, amounts to around £100bn, which is equivalent to our current financial deficit. Waste within the NHS is estimated to be in the region of £5bn per year, double the amount of money that Ed Miliband has pledged to inject into the health service if he is elected to government in May 2015. Interestingly though, neither the Conservatives, nor the Labour Party have specifically mentioned about tackling the outrageous levels of financial waste that exists within the system itself, suggesting perhaps that they themselves are part of the problem, rather than any sort of solution.
For me, the answer to our country's many problems is a relatively straightforward one. We need to break the system in order to mend the system; and to do that we must vote for anyone BUT the Conservative or Labour parties, the two competing economic ideologies that have trapped our nation in an ongoing cycle of boom and bust, spend and save, punish one group and reward another, divisive policies that have pulled our country apart, rather than holding it together. I'm not sure that it matters who one votes for, just so long as the two main legacy parties are denied the power to govern in the interest of the minority, rather than the majority of the British public. Only by breaking the system will people force the likes of the Conservative and Labour leaderships to reassess the priorities for the country, replacing the views and opinions of their focus groups and their special advisers, with those of the citizenry who actually live and work here. In other words putting the people of the United Kingdom back in charge of the country, which is where they should have been right from the outset.