October 14, 2022

The most awkward part of being a vicar is the hanging around. We used to call it a ministry of presence: hovering near the school gate at drop-off time, or wandering aimlessly at the village fête. You do sometimes feel a bit of an idiot doing it; billy no-mates. But there is no substitute for just being there, out and about, in case people need your help.

The only other person I see doing this is the local MP. I feel their pain, but showing face is an important part of our democracy. The best thing about our current electoral system is that it grounds our Members of Parliament in their local communities: one MP to, roughly, 60,000 voters. That’s why popular MPs do lots of vicar-like stuff. They need to be seen out in the community, attending local events — even rather boring ones.

It’s easier doing this as a vicar as our patches are smaller: there are 12,500 parishes in England compared to 543 constituencies. But the principle is similar. Just as the vicar seeks to connect the everyday and the sacred, so the MP links each region of the country back to the source of power in Westminster. Britain’s first-past-the-post system (FPTP) may not be the most democratically inclusive or politically efficient, but it connects the particular temper of everyday life to the larger perspective that is required in Parliament.

Proportional representation would sever this connection. Even the most local-friendly versions of PR involve considerably expanded constituencies and multiple MPs for one area. When parishes are combined into huge conglomerations, the vicar dies of exhaustion or retreats behind his computer screen. And MPs would face the same fate. To the parishioner or the constituent, authority begins to feel much more distant, more top-down than bottom-up. And levels of trust begin to decay. You may say that trust in politicians, and indeed in clergy, has long gone. And that’s partly true, but people do tend to trust their own MP more than they do politicians in general.

Yet PR would erode this unique bond between MPs and their constituents. Just as the role of the Church of England vicar is to be there for everyone, regardless of their denomination or faith, so too an MP is there for you, whether you voted for them or not. Why? Because there is only one of them. A constituency of multiple MPs would encourage constituents to gravitate towards the MP of their own political persuasion, thus introducing a political divisiveness all the way down to the local level.

As a communitarian, I have long hated PR. But how can we possibly avoid it? The sclerotic duopoly of two political parties created by FPTP has produced politicians and leaders of such mediocracy that many of us now have no one to vote for.

A great many Brits lean Left on economics and Right on culture: a position not reflected by either political party. We want a fair redistribution of wealth, but we don’t want gender self-ID or woke culture wars. We are happy to pay more tax to help out those in need, but we don’t want our politicians presenting England as a country of racists or the Royal family as an unnecessary burden from a bygone age. And we are pleased that we left the European superstate project. Boris Johnson, for all his many personal failings, was the only recent politician to embody those values.

Yet Boris may have been an aberration, a blip in order of things. Because what FPTP does in practice is to offer politicians the sorting hat with two possible choices: Labour or Conservatives. Yes, they could decide to be Liberal or Green, but like Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, no one really cares about them. To get into power, you have to form a coalition with people whose views you may quite dislike. Not only that, but you will have to accept the discipline of the party structure, sometimes pressuring you to keep some views to yourself.

Politicians would still have to form coalitions under PR. But whereas FPTP encourages MPs to form coalitions before an election — by choosing one of two parties — crucially, PR creates its coalitions after elections, with lots of small parties jostling to form alliances so as to achieve the collective numbers to form a government. As a result, PR has no need of broad-tent political parties.

This is why the Labour Conference voting for PR, as they did recently, was a vote for their extinction. If we had an electoral system in which smaller parties could get a chance of power, the Left of Labour would split from the Right of Labour. Blairites, Blue Labour, and the Trots would all find their own distinctive voices. And similarly with the Tories. If we had PR, the “red wall” Tories and their country cousins would no longer need to remain in a forced marriage with all those strutting libertarians and City-types. The two big parties would fall apart. And good riddance, I say. In one stroke, I and millions of others would have someone they felt comfortable voting for.

It feels more than slightly ironic that this communitarian is coming round to PR, which is highly toxic to local political communities, and to the MP’s ministry of presence. But it has been forced out of me. I believe voting to be the nearest thing to a sacred responsibility that you can have in a secular democracy. But when the next election comes round, I couldn’t vote for any of them. And while I could spoil my ballot paper, that would feed my inner cynic. Is it too much to ask for a political party that many of us could vote for without holding my nose? Only PR would give us all a longer list of credible options. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have outlasted their welcome. The way of getting rid of them would be to shake up the voting system.

Never watch how sausages are made, they say. It will put you off. PR would let you watch. After an election, we would see coalitions being formed, compromises being made, policies betrayed for power. That is how it works. We would need a strong stomach as PR can be a messy business. But anything has to be better than this.