Our voting system matters

Shortly before leaving the US presidency, Barack Obama declared “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter.” As a point of principle, and sometimes even in practice, he’s right. The problem in the UK is its first past the post system. In general elections – and in many of the local elections about to take place as Perspective goes to print – millions of votes have no value at all.

In fact, according to Make Votes Matter (see Campaign), when Boris Johnson secured his “stonking majority” in 2019, over 70 per cent of voters had no influence over its outcome. That’s because there are usually multiple candidates, and most MPs are returned with more people voting against them than for them. And that’s before you consider the effect of voter apathy, or disaffection. The 67 per cent turnout meant the Tories’ majority was achieved with the support of less than 30 per cent of those enrolled.

Although it’s the Conservatives who benefit most – it takes on average over 12,000 more voters to return a single Labour MP than a Conservative one – the Conservatives suffer a similar fate in Scotland at the hands of the SNP. But it’s the smaller parties the system hits hardest. For every one per cent of the national vote cast for the Conservatives in 2019, they won over eight seats, while that ratio for the Liberal Democrats was just 1:1. Meanwhile, the Greens scored almost three per cent of the vote but just one seat, and the Brexit Party no seats at all for their two per cent of the vote. Ultimately the system is so distorted that a third of electors say they usually vote “tactically” rather than for their preferred candidate, disfiguring results further still.

Our voting system matters because it produces a governing class bearing little resemblance to the governed, particularly in terms of wealth, life experience and opportunities. Almost half the members of Cabinet attended Oxbridge, and about 70 per cent were privately educated – compared to just seven per cent overall. This mismatch matters less when the economy is booming and life for most is on the up. It matters more when unfairness and inequality are exacerbated by the effects of covid, Brexit, and rampant inflation – when the elite are exposed as tone-deaf to the cost-of-living crisis. This is seen by how quickly our richest minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, recently squandered his chance of grabbing the premiership.

Vladimir Putin’s savage kleptocracy in Russia and his vicious war against Ukraine (see Gavin Esler, The Interview) has reminded many in the West just how precious but fragile our democracies are. But there are warning signs everywhere – the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and that of the hard-right Law and Justice party in Poland, the capture of the Republican party by Donald Trump, and the recent spectacle of more than 40 per cent of France voting for Marine Le Pen (see Anne-Elisabeth Moutet). All of these phenomena are responses to these same widespread feelings of unfairness and disenfranchisement.

One justification often cited for FPTP is that it delivers “strong government”. But Johnson’s shambolic two-and-a-half years at the helm of British politics disproves that notion. If anything, the apparent impregnability of Johnson’s majority and his reputation as a vote-winner only contribute to the sense of a governing elite unconstrained by the rules and deprivations applying to the rest of us.

Some will point to the 2011 referendum when the country voted against introducing the alternative vote system. But that was over a decade ago, with a turnout of around 40 per cent. Its result can largely be seen as a kicking for the Liberal Democrats, who suffered heavy losses in local elections at the same time as punishment for their complicity in the coalition government’s austerity. Many polls since then have shown that no more than 25 per cent of the electorate supports keeping FPTP, and well over half agree that the number of seats a party gets should reflect its share of the vote.

As the country emerged from its covid slumber last year, there was a brief euphoric sense that we might be on the cusp of a new Roaring Twenties, powered by a wave of green innovation. Now the future of Europe, of our economy and our ecology, and even the future of the British Union itself, couldn’t be less certain. The Westminster parliament has shown itself incapable of producing the good governance needed to address these challenges, or of bridging the deep fissures in our society (see Boris Starling). Without major electoral reform, it seems unlikely the UK will even survive as a nation state in the longer term. It’s time all the opposition parties united to demand another, more considered, referendum on proportional representation. Our future outside Europe might – for now – have been decided. But the quest for real democracy at Westminster has barely begun.


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