12 May 2015

What Italy can teach Britain


There are arguably very few things the UK can learn from Italy, apart from how to make decent pizza and how to look fashionable even while food-shopping in the supermarket. But there is one serious lesson Britain can learn from Italy. That is, be very careful when it comes to electoral reform.

In the aftermath of one of the messiest elections that the UK has ever experienced, there seems to be the only thing that many people agree on, be it left-wing newspapers or right-wing politicians from UKIP, a party which got almost four million votes last week and only one seat in the House of Commons.

From the humblest tweeter to the most illustrious expert, rants have been heard on the unfairness of the First Past the Post system and the necessity of electoral reform. I do not know whether these connoisseurs of political system actually know what they are talking about, or whether they are just airing second or third-hand opinions heard on TV during election time. But it is undeniable that there is pressure growing for voting reform in the wake of a Conservative victory secured with 37% of the vote.

As an Italian in London, I observe this raging over the voting system with pure astonishment. Many British seem to think that a proportional system would be fairer. Graphs and articles have invaded the internet, showing how different the House of Commons would look under PR.

To me, this is bewildering. Having grown up in Italy, I know too well what it means to have absolutely no way to hold politicians accountable. Italy’s electoral system is a PR, closed-list one. Voters can pick their party and their representative within a list of candidates that are chosen by the party itself. Parties that get less than 3% of the votes cannot sit in the Camera (the lower Chamber), and the party that gets the highest majority (equal to or higher than 40%) has the right of 340 seats – 54% of the total.

Now, the fact that the current electoral system has been declared unconstitutional by Italy’s Supreme Court is another story. The point I am trying to make is that Italian voters have absolutely no way to hold their politicians to account. They do not know them. No member of any list belongs to a particular area and they are not committed to putting forward the interest of constituents.

This is a system by which Berlusconi was able to make people like Mara Carfagna, former model and showgirl, a minister in his own government. This is a system by which the ‘friend of…’ and the ‘son of…’ reach the highest positions in politics because of whom they know. This is a system that has allowed politicians to vote ad-hoc rules to remain in power for life, to receive benefits for life, and to suck public money without anyone standing up against it.

When I came to the UK to study politics and learned how the British electoral system works, I felt relieved that I had finally ended up in a civilised country. The idea that many people here know their MP and rely on the fact that he or she will advocate their own community’s needs and interests sounds like heaven. The British system has at least two incredibly valuable benefits.

First, it truly gives power to the people: MPs know that their performance will be scrutinised and tracked, praised with a new mandate or punished with dropping electoral support. It is in their interest to know how much a pint of milk costs and which school in their constituency needs new sporting facilities.

Second, as some constituencies have just shown, every single vote counts. Voters in the polling station know that that little cross will matter, and therefore have all the interest in knowing which candidates will best represent them. It is a system that compels voters to think about who to vote for, to make truly informed decisions.

Of course I am not saying that there are no flaws in this system. Even to me, it seems quite unfair that 1.5 million voters in Scotland elected 56 SNP MPs, while 3.8 million UKIP supporters were assigned a single seat. But, as much as people could feel outraged by these results, I wish they would not forget the virtues of their current electoral system.

If any alternative is to be considered, maybe it would be worth to look at the Scottish Parliament – although I am not sure how many English voters would concede they have something to learn from the Scots. The devolved elections are operated on a mixed system: 73 of the 129 seats are elected through the traditional FPTP system, whereas the rest are chosen through PR. This way, accountability is preserved, but so is proportionality of representation.

But if the British do attempt electoral reform, I hope it will not erode a reliable system. Once you have lost the ability to hold politicians to account, you have lost it forever. They will have no incentive to go back to the old system, once they realise they can get away with almost anything and still keep their seats.

Beatrice Faleri is Associate Editor of Perspectives at King’s College London