The Speaker
Monday, 20 May 2024 – 23:45

Politics requires change but not how Cummings thinks

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Dominic Cummings is a name most in Britain are aware of. The architect of the Vote Leave campaign and dubbed notoriously by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’, Cummings is an unorthodox political operative who has strong views on how the UK political system should function.

Speaking in his first major interview since leaving Number 10, Cummings told BBC’s Laura Kussemberg that he believed that UK politics is rife with political ‘duffers’ and the party system ‘throws up people that don’t know what they are doing’. To some extent I agree with him, but differ in terms of what solutions I would suggest in terms of improving British politics for the better.

If you read Cummings’ blog posts you can forgive yourself for getting lost in the details. Though articulate and thorough in his analysis of the political landscape, one of his main points can be reduced to a relatively simple argument. Cummings repeatedly targets his ire towards the civil service, seeing them as overly bureaucratic, slow and filled with humanities graduates who have little knowledge or expertise in the area of government they are focused on. He has suggested hiring more ‘nerds’, particularly those with STEM backgrounds in order to make the spine of British politics more effective and smooth. According to Cummings, too many politicians and civil servants went to Oxbridge to study PPE before entering politics, and so individuals from a wider breadth of society and expertise need to be brought in to make politics more pluralistic and functionable. 

I don’t necessarily disagree with him but feel that there are greater changes which could be made to some of the fundamental structures of the British political system which could have a greater impact on how the system operates. Improving the civil service and wanting to make it more streamlined is admirable, but having a stronger parliament which can hold power to account and having politicians who actually speak for the population they supposedly represent is more important to me. This can only be done with a move away from the outdated first past the post voting system. 

The need for electoral reform in Westminster is overwhelming and the current system is not fit for purpose. As a result, there are flaws in the design of the political system which undermines the democratic credentials of the UK. For example, the system currently discriminates against parties that lack concentrated support, and this is undemocratic and unfair as all parties should be equally rewarded in seats proportional to their amount of votes they receive. A well known example of where parties without concentrated support have been discriminated against is UKIP, who received 1 MP in 2015, despite gathering 3.8 million votes, whilst the SNP managed to elected 56 MPs from only 1.4 million votes. 

Despite your personal views on UKIP and Nigel Farage, it seems unfair that a party who managed to amass over millions of votes but were unable to convert this into seats simply because their party does not have concentrated support. To use a more recent example, during the 2019 general election, the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party received 16% (5.2 million) of votes between them, yet shared just 2% of seats. Is this really fair?

With FPTP being a winner take all voting system, all those that cast votes for a candidate other than the winner essentially had their vote wasted. As the current system encourages safe seats and therefore low turnout, it is no surprise that only 11% of seats in the 2017 election actually changed hands, with the rest of the constituencies keeping the same party in charge. Is there any surprise that many are feeling apathetic towards politics and feel that the system is broken and corrupt? Individuals are moving towards extreme parties because they feel they do not have a voice in the political process, and to some extent, they don’t. For someone living in Shrewsbury in a Conservative safe seat is there any point in turning out to vote Green when it won’t have an impact on the result at all?   

All this is not to say that changing to a more proportional electoral system is not without drawbacks. In 2011, the British public rejected proposals to move to a more representative electoral system, with over 68% opposing the alternate vote during the referendum. On the surface, this implies that the public generally are happy with the current system, though I would argue that this is because they are unaware of the other electoral systems such as AMS and STV and were put off by the tactics of the NOtoAV campaign, whose strategy was masterminded in part by who else but Dominic Cummings. Educating the public on why electoral systems are important could be useful in getting more people to demand a change. 

I am an advocate of moving away from first past the most and towards a fairer and more proportional voting system. However, I am a realist and acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that this will occur under a Labour or Conservative government, as the status quo system as it exists unfairly over rewards large parties. In 2015 for example, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the general election with a mere 36.8% of the vote, meaning just over a third of the electorate voted for them. More starkly, in 2005 Labour secured a comfortable overall majority of 67 seats on just 35% of the vote, showing that both of the big parties benefit from the system and have no intention to change it. 

The traditional political parties have no interest in changing the electoral system to something which is fairer and more democratic as it is not in their interest to do so. This is why we ourselves as young people have to get electoral reform on the political agenda. Change will not come in a system where those in power are comfortable but in one where the masses change and demand action. Until that change occurs, many more will feel unrepresented and apathetic. 

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