Tuesday, 19 May 2015

disproportionate representation

or, how proportional representation is a good/bad thing

In 1979 two important things happened. 

Firstly, a left wing pressure group called Militant Tendency finally managed to bring down the Labour government and installed Margaret Thatcher in No 10.

Secondly, the Moat Housing Society finished a new development off Heron Hill in Belvedere and I moved in with my family early in that year. The development comprised a row of houses with a block of flats opposite.

These two events are connected as will become clear in due course.

When we first moved in, it still looked like a building site with little or no landscaping of either the front or back gardens. Still, we were all (or mostly) young families and we soon got to work making the place look habitable and everyone spent a lot of time and effort turning the front gardens into something respectable.

Now at the time, Moat tended to treat the whole estate like a barracks and the occupants more like inmates that tenants; we would receive endless letters reminding us of the long list of rules and the penalties for any transgression.

This all came to a head about a year after we had moved in when they decided that our front gardens needed fences around them. One morning we discovered a team of workmen digging great big holes and trying to install these fences. Now we are not talking about subtle landscaping here, these were like the sort of thing you would see around a prison complex; huge great posts and planks that looked like a wooden version of the Berlin Wall.

Needles to say, we were not best pleased and a revolt soon started. Irate occupants decided to show what we thought of these 'improvements' by pulling the posts out of the ground and making it clear to the workmen trying to install them just what we thought of their efforts. Eventually, they all retreated and that was the end of that for the day.

As per usual, Moat's reaction to this was a whole raft of threatening letters which finished up in the bin. Our attempts to reason with them was met with the "they are our properties and we will do what we like with them" standard attitude.

Anyway, this rumbled on for weeks and eventually I decided to write to my MP about it. At the time this was the Labour MP Jim Wellbeloved. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much, perhaps an acknowledgement letter signed by p.p (squiggle), so no-one was more surprised than me to find him standing on my doorstep one Sunday morning asking what all the fuss was about.

I introduced him to the other tenants affected by the problem and he took a real interest, arranging a meeting on site with some big cheese from Moat and helped thrash out an agreement, not only about the front garden fences, but even persuaded them to give us some money to landscape the rest of the site that was still as the builders had left it.

Now wind forward a couple of years. It's 1983, it's election time again and the Labour Party is in total meltdown. Michael Foot has written their Election Maifesto (described as the 'Longest Suicide Note in History' by Gerald Kaufman) and most of their MPs have abandoned the sinking ship, joining the newly formed Social Democratic Party. Jim Wellbeloved was one of these.

One day, I was driving through North Heath just at the start of the election campaign and passed the SDP Party Headquarters, (just 2 doors down from the Labour one as it happens) and I thought "this guy put himself out to help me when I needed it and one good turn deserves another".

I parked up, walked back to their office and offered my services. I was quite surprised when the man himself announced that they were just off out campaigning and I was with him. I think I had just come back from photographing a wedding and looked pretty cool in my smart suit.

It was so much fun; I don't think I have enjoyed myself so much either before or since. After just a brief moment of trepidation, I quickly got into the swing of it and set to with a vengeance. For the next few weeks you would see me tramping around the borough in the sweltering summer heat, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets. 

What really surprised me was how friendly everyone was, I don't think I met anyone who was genuinely hostile. There were a few of the usual ' not interested' individuals but they were only a small minority. I suppose at the time, the SDP was a new idea as yet untarnished and most people had high hopes of them.

One thing that really did shock me though was a number of people saying they would vote for me if I stood for election. Me, a Member of Parliament? I don't think so. What if they discovered all about my murky past.

In the event, it all was for nothing because, come election day, everyone just voted for the Torylabour block as usual.

Having said that, no they didn't. Which brings me back to Proportional Representation.

After all the votes were counted, the Conservative Party, having lost nearly three quarters of a million votes were returned to power with the largest majority since the Labour landslide of 1945. The Labour Party, with around 8.5 million votes (27.6%) won 209 seats and the SDP/Liberal Alliance with 7.8 million votes (25.4%) won 23.

This set off a major debate about our antiquated 'first past the post' electoral system and how it wasn't fit for purpose in a multi-party society. Needless to say, none of the newspapers agreed with this at all. Most were outright Tory supporters with, I think, the Mirror supporting Labour. PR would not suit either of them so damm the injustice and stick with what we have was the message, with the added warning that PR would bring about anarchy, chaos and an end to civilization as we know it.

Not any more. The tabloid rag known as the Daily Express has suddenly realised that their loony pals in UKIP would have actually collected 83 seats in the 2015 election if we had PR and have decided that  not having proportional representation is an 'affront to democracy'. Pity they didn't think that in 1983 but I suppose better late than never.

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