Britain’s General Election in May ended in a farcical result: a majority government only just over a quarter of adult population voted for. It is no wonder anti-austerity protests have intensified and the need for electoral reform is widely acknowledged.
First-past-the-post system favours big parties and pushes aside the possibility for any alternatives to arise from the party political sphere. It is more a relic than an electoral system fit for the 21st century.
But having followed another election closely just weeks before the British one, I can’t help but think that a more democratic electoral system – such as proportional representation – is no magic bullet either.
Finland, often held up as an example of egalitarianism and a strong welfare state that leaves no one behind, went to the polls in April. Contrary to most predictions, the right-wing Perussuomalaiset (PS – they call themselves the Finns Party in English, but as a Finn I prefer to use the acronym rather than let them take ownership of the name of the nation) held on to their position as the second-biggest party. They formed a coalition with the winning Centre Party – in reality, a right of the centre party with a former businessman leader who is now the PM – and the free-market neoliberal National Coalition Party, pushing for heavy austerity.
The Finnish electoral system follows the D’Hondt method as do those of several European countries, including Scotland, which uses it in part. It aims to allocate seats proportionately to votes first to parties and then to candidates inside the party. In reality this is somewhat compromised by differing sizes of constituencies: in the Finnish capital Helsinki, a candidate from a small party can stay out of the Parliament with double the number of votes than it takes for someone from a larger party to get in in a less densely populated area.
The PS is led by a charismatic populist, Timo Soini, and the rest of the MPs are as colourful a bunch as his rhetoric. Most are new to politics and there is little of a shared party line other than varying degrees of xenophobia, homophobia, conservativism and the feeling that Finland under EU membership has left many behind. The lack of coherence in policies was showed by the discrepancy between pre-election rhetoric of being on the side of “ordinary” people and the coalition government’s budget. Austerity in Finland is not that different from austerity elsewhere: it benefits the rich, not the ordinary.
Then there is the issue of racism. Jussi Halla-aho, now an MEP, has been found guilty for inciting racial hatred in his writings. One MP, Pentti Oinonen, spoke against equal marriage comparing it to the right to marry one’s dog. And just some weeks ago, another MP Olli Immonen (who also happens to be chairman of a white supremacist organisation) posed in a group photo with members from an openly neo-Nazi group. But the party takes no action and Mr Soini manages to convince his supporters that these are isolated incidents – or that the liberal media is on a crusade against the PS.
It is definitely true that the media is very concentrated in the capital Helsinki. That it is so out of touch with the rural and working class areas where the PS gained most of their support from is showed by the fact that no opinion polls managed to capture their popularity before the election. The media keeps portraying the party’s supporter base as uneducated, ignorant and small-minded people who don’t really understand their political choices. What could feed protest votes against arrogant establishment more than that?
But to call the Finnish media left-wing would be to miss the truth by miles; it has largely adapted the language used by populists who call themselves “critical towards immigration”. This Orwellian renaming of racism obscures what it is: racism.
The tricky bit is that Finland’s growth since it emerged from the recession in the 90s has indeed left many people behind – and the EU does not show its most democratic side (if it has one) to a country with a population of 5 million. The PS speak to those who have been alienated by most politicians: those hit hardest by the structural changes that have speeded up the transition to a post-industrial society, losing their jobs first when the recession hit and left out of the boom when there was one.
The underlying problem is that most politicians are in denial about all this, which leaves a lot of ground for racist rhetoric. This is a shared issue across Europe. It definitely applies to UKIP in Britain: under the Finnish PR system, they would now have 80 seats in Westminster.
I am not saying that there is much good in the British electoral system. Those who argue that it keeps extremist parties in check have lost sight of the extreme nature of Tory cuts. And don’t even get me started on the House of Lords - what does an unelected second chamber have to do in any system that claims to be a democracy?
But it is misguided to argue that we could have democracy by electoral reform. Politics does not start or end at the polling station. British media is even more concentrated and outright propaganda than the Finnish; inequality in the UK triumphs any European country; sums business and the financial sector here can spend on lobbying and party donations mirror their influence.
There is much more to consider for democracy. Real democracy can only take place when we tackle the ravaging inequality brought about by decades of neoliberalism, intensified by the most recent push for austerity.
Proportional representation is a good transitional demand, as are limits to political donations, transparency and media reform. We need to go further and create radically different ways of sharing our world, based on co-operation rather than competition and seeking collective rather than individual gain.