Is powerlessness increasing violence?

Without question, the recent murder of David Amess MP is a tragedy, both for politics – no matter what your political persuasion – and for his friends and family. It’s wrong to use violence to express frustration and anger on anyone, MP or not.

However, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an important lesson to be learnt. Few would argue against the notion that UK politics today is deeply polarised.

The old tribal loyalties have evaporated. People tend to vote more on individual issues today and there are many, such as climate change, that cut across the old political divides. Instead, there’s a myriad of sub-groups through which anger and frustration can be vented, echo chambers that reinforce world views that reflect to a greater or – often – lesser extent the reality on the ground. These aim to change things through a variety of means from gentle persuasion to direct action.

So it would appear that the outlet for many people’s frustration is not through their MP, the ballot box, or a special interest group such as the RSPCA, routes seen as the traditional ways of changing things.

Though mostly completely legitimate, the growth of echo chamber sub-groups implies that traditional political routes are perceived as pointless and irrelevant. My point is to argue that this phenomenon may in part at least be driven by a sense that Westminster politics does not reflect the pluralistic world in which we live today.

Yet in Parliament, it remains a binary world: you’re either Conservative or Labour. Both these parties support a voting system – first past the post (FPTP) – that allows only one of those two parties to form a government. Anyone in a constituency where the MP isn’t of their political persuasion is automatically excluded from having their views represented, even if they are among a cohort of greater than 50 percent of those who voted. Consequently, many live their entire adult lives without representation.

In such a situation, it may not be seen as surprising that some people’s rage at such powerlessness, perhaps exacerbated by the growth in inequality in the UK, causes a small minority to issue death threats to their MPs – the numbers of which have gone through the roof in recent times. Yes, they are a small minority, but they are likely to be expressing feelings that many also feel but who choose not to express them through violence, whether physical or verbal.

Let me be clear: this is not to excuse, but to offer one possible explanation for the situation in which we now find ourselves.

What’s the alternative? Most countries have adopted some form of proportional representation (PR). It’s not perfect, but I’m not going into the pros and cons here. What I can say is that you’re more likely to get at least some of your views represented in the form of legislation or regulation with a PR electoral system than FPTP.

So I’d argue that if people didn’t feel as powerless, as disconnected from parliamentary politics as they do, if they felt that they had some form of leverage over their government – which right now is clearly governing for the few not the many – and if they felt that they could vote with their hearts rather then having to resort to tactical voting as millions do, then maybe, just maybe, the extremes to which a small minority have resorted may not have had to be manifested in violence, whether actual or potential, but through the ballot box.