How do we elect our prime ministers? At a cricket match in Scarborough I overheard three gentlemen cheerfully discussing the prospect of a new prime minister. From their accents they were perhaps not from Yorkshire. A snippet of their conversation made it dawn on me that these three guys actually had a vote! Members of the Conservative Party, they were three of the 160,000 who do.
I am just one of the other 46,400,000 on the electoral roll who can’t vote this time, so I cheekily thought I’d join their conversation. It’s one of the joys of a cricket match. You can talk to anybody, about anything. So, I was welcomed to their chat, and I had two questions for them.
Q1: Who was the most recent prime minister both to come into office at a general election and to be booted out at a general election?
Much scratching of heads. Was it Tony Blair? No, he left to be replaced by Gordon Brown. Was it John Major? No, he came in when Margaret Thatcher resigned.
The answer is Edward Heath, who won an election in 1970 and lost in 1974.
This, I pointed out to my three new acquaintances, was half a century ago. “Doesn’t that show” I suggested, “just how broken our system is?”
Gentleman A: “I guess you could look at it that way.”
Glum faces all round. Time for question two.
Q2: Which other country in Europe has a pure first-past-the-post electoral system, apart from the UK?
(Clue: there is only one).
More scratching of heads. No idea and no guesses on this one.
The answer is Belarus – that bastion of democratic rights and freedoms. More glum faces.
Agreement on the need to democratic reform
Gentleman B then volunteered that parliament would be much better off with half the number of MPs, paid better than they are now. Here we had some common ground. We could agree that the calibre of people going into politics is simply not good enough. This is not really the fault of politicians, it’s more the fault of the rest of us for not going into politics.
“Let me tell you a story”, I volunteered. “My partner was at university in the 1990s. Four of their contemporaries became MPs. Three of them had the combination of brains, integrity and personality that would be a credit to anywhere they worked. What’s happened to them?
One left to run a museum – his dream job.
One quit because she recognised that the hours and limited scope of the job meant there was no quality of life to the role, unless all you ever craved and cared about was the ‘prestige’ it gave.
The third is Rory Stewart who was kicked out of the Conservative parliamentary party by Boris Johnson.
The fourth is still there. They have been shifted around among five ministerial jobs in the last four years, begging the question about whether they were any good at any of them. I’m told that they were more appreciated at university for brawn than brains, and that even their rowing friends said that you didn’t want to end up sitting next to them in the pub on a Saturday night.”
Our country is badly run
Anyone who is close to politics knows how badly run our country is. It’s partly the system, it’s partly the poor quality of the governing class. It is ridiculous that the next prime minister will be chosen by my three Scarborough friends—and they knew it. As I suspect most of their 160,000 fellows also know in their hearts.
And yet this is not a unique problem or just a recent happening. We have had half a century of the system not working in the way people think it does or should. Even at our not-very-important general elections we use a ‘voting’ system that, like in Belarus, returns the wrong result, with a government that only ever represents a minority of voters.
What can be done? Well, you can share my two questions with your friends, and put them on the quiz list for Quiz Nights in the pub. You could join an outfit like Make Votes Matter.
Or if you have a good job, and are good at your job, you could quit and go into politics. Not many takers for that one perhaps.