UK’s flawed voting system thwarts a solution to major challenges
The Independent – 24 August 2020
By Peter Tatchell
Britain seems to be staggering from disaster to disaster, with botched government action on Covid, an EU withdrawal deal and the exam results fiasco. Boris Johnson swats away his critics with the claim that he has a mandate, pointing to his whopping 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.
The reality is that his party won less than 44% of the 2019 vote but bagged 56% of the seats and 100% of the power – thanks to our flawed, anti-democratic electoral system of First Past The Post (FPTP).
The Tories are not the only villains. Labour grabbed 55% of the seats in the 2005 general election, despite winning the support of only 35% of voters and a mere 22% of registered electors. More people didn’t vote (39%) than voted Labour.
Shockingly, no party has won a majority of the vote in a UK general election since 1931. Even the landslide election victories of Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and Tony Blair in 1997 were secured with less than 44% of the popular vote.
Governments with minority support keep happening under our FPTP system. After every election, we again find ourselves ruled by a party that most of us rejected at the ballot box.
With FPTP, we end up with a Parliament that is a distorted, mangled reflection of the voter’s wishes. Millions vote for smaller parties, believing they will address, or at least express, their hopes and fears. But our electoral system silences them and denies them parliamentary representation. They may have just as well stayed home.
The sheer injustice and anti-democratic nature of FPTP is evidenced in last year’s general election result. It took a mere 38,000 votes to elect each Conservative MP, 50,000 votes to elect a Labour MP and over 865,000 votes to elect a single Green. This is not what the Chartists and Suffragettes fought for.
We tolerate this obvious injustice partly because it has been with us for so long that it has become taken granted. But FPTP also survives because the two main parties – Labour and Conservative – conspire to maintain it for selfish, sectarian reasons. It suits their interests.
The case for a fair voting system of proportional representation (PR) at Westminster, like we already have for Scottish, Welsh and London elections, has never been stronger.
More and more people are coming to this conclusion. A poll in July by Redfield and Wilton Strategies found that 54% of the public either support or strongly support a switch to PR.
Only 16% oppose or strongly oppose any change. The rest said they didn’t know or neither supported nor opposed PR. Even 53% of Conservative voters in 2019 now back PR; as do 63% of those who voted Labour. A significant 29% said that if PR was introduced they would be likely to vote for a different party than the one they previously voted for; suggesting that nearly a third of electors do not vote for the party they really prefer under the current system.
As the campaign group Make Votes Matter pointed out on its ‘Demand Democracy Day’ last Saturday, there are just two countries in Europe that still use FPTP for general elections. One is the UK. The other is the dictatorship in Belarus. Enough said!
We may like to think that ‘fair play’ is a fundamental British value, but nothing could be more flagrantly unfair than our present voting system.
There are parliamentary constituencies that have not changed hands for anything from several decades to over a century. In these safe seats, millions of people have learned that it makes absolutely no difference how they vote – or even whether they vote at all. No wonder so many people don’t bother to cast a ballot.
As a democracy, it is time the UK had a modern system of PR, where the percentage of seats won by a party matches the percentage of votes won by that party. In other words, where all votes count equally and where Parliament reflects the diversity of the people’s will.
While the voting system is an issue of democracy and fairness, it also impacts on our capacity to meet the big economic, social and environmental challenges of our age.
How can we successfully tackle major issues like the escalating recession and the climate crisis if the government does not have a popular mandate and cannot command majority public approval?
FPTP has also given us a government that is short on competence. During the Covid pandemic the government has made repeated promises that it has failed to deliver, including its failings on PPE, care homes and testing and tracing.
A government that most people did not vote for is presiding over one of the most incompetent responses to Covid, leading to deaths on a scale not seen anywhere else in Europe. But the public will have to wait until 2024 for a chance to remove the Tories, at which point there’s every possibility that, thanks to the FPTP electoral system, the same government will be returned to power, against most people’s wishes once again.
In last year’s general election, a clear majority of electors voted for parties committed to significantly stronger action against climate breakdown. Nevertheless, we ended up with a government whose manifesto, according to ratings by Friends of the Earth, “consistently failed to step up to address the climate and nature emergencies, which are hurting communities right now and will deliver catastrophe in the future.”
There’s no good reason for accepting a government with minority support at the best of times. But for how many more years will we allow ourselves to be led by one that is dragging us towards an impending climate disaster? The broad public support for the goals of Extinction Rebellion shows that many people already know that our political system is failing us. They understand the need for protest and also increasingly realise that FPTP is a major impediment to a majority-backed government that will take effective action against climate destruction.
It’s time we called out our voting system for what it is: not merely flawed or imperfect, but outrageous, intolerable and dangerous. Then we have to act. Lobbying MPs is fine but clearly not enough, otherwise they would have ditched FPTP years ago.
Campaigners from the Chartists to the Suffragettes and from OutRage! to Black Lives Matter, have shown that non-violent direct action and civil disobedience are often necessary tactics in the struggle for social justice. Few causes are of greater importance than the cause of a democratic, representative parliament. No one wants to be arrested but the time has come for PR by any peaceful means necessary. I’m ready. Are you?