Why is the EU such a Divisive issue in UK Politics?

 

The European Union is growing in importance as an issue in British politics. We can see this from the generation of new parties standing for election, devoted to exiting the EU – the United Kingdom Independence Party – and the referendum promised by David Cameron if he is elected in the 2015 General Election. In the early 2000s, EU stance would have made very little influence in voting behaviour compared to today, so what has changed? Why is the EU becoming such a divisive issue?

 

Under the strong Labour Government in the 2000s, EU interest appeared positive. In a time of economic strength, the populus appeared content in Europe, the benefit of the free movement of labour and lower cost for trading within Europe apparently outweighed the cost of being a member of the EU. The Government was very pro-Europe, and there was suggestion that Britain even join the euro. By huge contrast recent economic problems, particularly in the eurozone,  have ensured Britain won’t join the euro, so that it can’t be dragged down with the economic troubles of poorer and more corrupt parts of Europe. The cost of being part of the european union has also been seen as more of an issue, as Government expenditure has been significantly cut; affecting the lives of many Britons – changes to bedroom rules in council housing has made people homeless or completely unable to live in some parts of Britain; while the glaringly large price of Europe still remains on Government chequebooks.

 

Employment in Britain has been spiralling downwards in the current economic situations, and as a member of the EU there is a danger that employment for British citizens in Britain will fall further. With free movement of labour around Europe, and Britain having one of the most generous unemployment benefits of any European nation, immigration is only expected to rise. As more and more immigrants move into Britain, there will be an increased strain on employment and services. The enlargement of the EU to include parts of eastern Europe, and possibly in the future Turkey, has and will increase the traffic of workers into Britain dramatically, aside from the issue that some of the enlarging nations have very different cultures to what is considered ‘european’. It has been known for racial tensions to arise between British people and eastern european immigrants moving to Britain for work. These race and immigration issues have driven the issue of europe into the popular eye.

 

Perhaps the most importance fear for eurosceptics is that all of the above issues are no longer under our control. Britain cannot tighten its border controls as the EU has power over this, and cannot survive without remaining tied to the European Union. Britain’s legislative power is slowly being eroded and sent to supranational european bodies, which is of huge importance in UK politics. The EU now governs immigration laws, fishing and agricultural policy, and may extend into traditionally national policy areas like a Common Foreign and Security Policy and Justice and Home Affairs Policy. There is an increasing fear among Britons that they are losing democratic influence over their country, as in instead of choosing a home Government, their vote is being diluted in European institutions. And simultaneously, we are bound to Europe. It would be costly to leave the EU with a sudden rise in cost of importing goods and rebuilding close ties with other European countries. It would be a great struggle for Britain to leave and hold its own outside the EU, but it remains a great struggle for Britain when inside the EU.

 

If the EU was only a drain on Britain, it couldn’t be divisive in UK Politics, as there would be total agreement over Europe. The reason why the EU is so discussed and important is that there is still evidence to suggest we should be part of Europe. The Liberal Democrats remain intent on remaining in the EU and some even would like to join the euro, though this would be an unpopular move. Europe has split the Conservative party, as some argue for independence while others wish to keep ties. This indecisiveness could prove disastrous for David Cameron in 2015, as UKIP slowly creeps over Tory eurosceptic ground.

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To what Extent do Elections in the UK Fulfill their Purpose?

In the UK we use a variety of different electoral systems for the various different elections run. For the UK general election, deciding Members of Parliament, we use ‘First Past the Post’ or Single Member Plurality system; for electing Members of the European Parliament, a Closed List system is used. These various systems have both advantages and disadvantages, but to what extent do they fulfill their purpose? Are they truly Democratic?

To examine the quality of Elections in the UK, we must first decide the criteria by which we are to measure the systems. In December 1997, an Independent Commission on the Voting System was set up to examine elections in the UK, after the Labour manifesto promised electoral reform. The commission’s result was the Jenkins’ Report, after Lord Jenkins. This outlined the criteria for a democratic electoral system as: Variety of Voter Choice, Strong Resulting Government, Proportionality between Votes and Results, and a Direct Link between MPs and their Constituency. The report revealed how poor the UK’s voting system is. First Past the Post may have a constituency link and deliver strong government, but fails to deliver proportionality – the UK hasn’t had a majority Government for 60 years – and for voters there is a limited choice for realistic candidates. But for the UK’s General Election, what alternatives are there?

There are three main types of Electoral system – Plurality, Majoritarian, and Proportional – with the addition of Hybrid systems which may incorporate elements of many systems simultaneously. A Majoritarian system, such as AV and SV, may provide the UK with a strong Government but still doesn’t provide the same proportionality as other systems like the Open List or Closed List, used in MEP elections and the General Election of Finland. But as we approach better systems of voting, satisfying more of the criteria, an entirely new series of issues arises – price, complexity, and length of time. For systems like STV where a complicated formula is used to calculate a voting threshold – the Droop Formula – it is difficult to imagine the average voter understanding the system. The major advantage of FPTP is its simplicity, and for many people, this ease of voting outweighs the importance of proportionality and voter choice.

Many systems suggest redividing the constituencies so that large constituencies contain several MP seats. This list system may provide better proportionality and allow smaller parties to gain seats for the first time, but arguably fails to give a direct close link between each MP and their small constituency. But equally, voters are more likely to have a link with the MP they voted for or best represents them, even if they work or live further away than before. In the current electoral system, only a small number of constituencies – around 20 – can form ‘swing states’ that can produce different party MPs. The majority of constituencies have ‘MPs for life’ and don’t change political party orientation.

In 2011, a referendum was held into the possibility of changing electoral system from FPTP to AV – alternative vote. A severe issue with the referendum, and also with the system itself, was that many voters simply didn’t understand AV, leaving a voter turnout of just 42%. A ‘NO’ was reached, with 67.9% of the voters voting against changing electoral system. AV would have removed the problem of wasted votes from FPTP, as one can vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order. But this is not a proportional representation system. It still has the issue that minority parties won’t form Government.

But there are more elections in the UK than simply the General Election. SV is used for electing the London Mayor; and is designed for a race with two main candidates. SV gives a voter two votes, and reduces the problem of wasted votes, but again, isn’t a proportional system. This is clearly not an appropriate system for choosing MPs. This system only works in London, as the two main candidates – Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone – received 84% of the first votes between them, an overwhelming majority. In the General Election we try to avoid a two-party system, and are slowly approaching a multi-party race between the growing number of minor parties.

In conclusion, I would say that elections in the UK need reforming. We use a variety of different systems to fit a variety of different political situations, but there are most definitely areas for improvement, particularly with the UK General Election. The simplicity and tradition of FPTP doesn’t justify its major flaws – disproportionality and wasted votes – and I think a push towards the List Systems of voting, despite producing coalition Governments, would give voters a better choice. There would be no reason to have to vote tactically. But even today we could be moving closer to direct democracy, with the increased use of referenda, and the possibility of internet-based voting, making such referenda cheaper and easier to run. The Jenkins criteria suggests an optimal system – Alternative Vote Plus. This apparently fulfills all the purposes of voting, but it has never been used anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that Britain’s Voting System will change, but I personally wish it to. The UK’s elections don’t fulfill its criteria fully, but there is definitely opportunity to do so.

Discuss the view that Statute Law is the most important root of the UK Constitution

The UK Constitution is uncodified, and is rooted from many different sources of law and authority. These many roots have different status and questionable importance. Firstly, there is Statute Law, the written laws and acts of parliament; common law is the series of laws based on traditions and long established practices – these can be seen as out-of-touch, but also imprecise and difficult for judges to base decisions on. Similarly, conventions are the key unwritten and non-legal elements to constitution; many are only upheld for practical reasons, and have no specific strength against written laws. Many items of literature by classical authors have been seen as particularly significant and with enough authority to be interpreted as a root of British Constitution, though don’t have specific legal binding force. Much of the UK’s constitution has been directed from EU laws and treaties, inflicted by EU authority over our national government. Continue reading