For many people the walk to the polling station is a forlorn and pointless ritual, with no prospect of your vote making a shred of difference to the result. General Elections are decided by a sprinkling of marginal seats across the UK. In the 2019 General Election, a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, only 81 of the 650 constituencies changed hands. Around 180 seats have not changed hands since the Second World War.
With an 80 seat majority on just 43.6% of the vote, the current Conservative government are acting as an elective dictatorship and you could make a case that Marcus Rashford has more sway over government policy than any of the opposition parties.
In terms of fairness, the current ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) voting system fails miserably. In 2019 the Conservatives won 56% of seats with just 43% of the vote and although many will have despised the ‘dog-whistle’ politics of UKIP their 3,881,099 votes received in the 2015 General Election (12.6% of the total vote) merited more than the one seat they achieved.
FPTP system breeds apathy, with both political activism and money being concentrated in marginal seats. Come General Election time, large swathes of the UK are ignored as political resources are concentrated in the small number of constituencies that do change hands. Consequently, the votes in these areas have a far greater value than those across the rest of the country. Further, as elections are swung by a few marginal seats this increases the risk of dark money being poured into these seats alongside targetted online advertising, which bypasses accountable and transparent modes of campaigning.
FPTP also results in a high proportion of voters lacking the representation that the strength of their vote deserves. In 2017 the East of England region, Labour obtained a 32.7% vote share, but this only resulted in 7 Labour MPs being elected out of a total of 58 MPs in the region, a 12% share.
The FPTP system also skews local elections, with Labour in 2019 achieving a 20.8% vote share across Central Bedfordshire, but resulting in just one Labour Councillor out of a total of 52. This imbalance means that many voters are left without a voice and become disengaged from the political process and cynical about what politicians can achieve. Politics becomes something that happens to them, rather than something that they are involved in.
Imagine striding down the street knowing that your vote will count just a much as everyone else’s across the country. From a Labour perspective this would reinvigorate CLPs, which in areas lacking in any Labour representation can be little more than well meaning talking shops. MPs used to a cushy little number in a safe seat would need to be far more accountable to their electorate, and political activity from all parties would increase.
Of course, a fairer voting system introduced through a form of Proportional Representation (PR) would not be a magic fix to the significant problems and challenges faced by the UK. The imbalance of power is deeply seated and vigorously defended by the state. PR must just be the start of radical changes to how the the UK is governed and which seeks to correct those imbalances of power, and how that power is held to account.
Time is running short. We currently have a Conservative government, perhaps the most authoritarian that the UK has ever seen, determined to strip away the checks and balances of our democracy and concentrate power in the hands of the executive. Recently put in place as the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab’s disdain for the Human Rights Act is well known. Further, while the government seems clueless in how to deal with the many challenges it currently faces, it presses ahead with plans to reduce the opportunity of government to be held to account by judicial review and seeks to disenfranchise millions of voters (not theirs of course) through the introduction of Voter ID.
So if PR is so good, why is there opposition to it? Well, in the case of the Conservative Party, FPTP suits them as they benefit from the division of progressive parties, enabling them to obtain substantial majorities with a minority of the vote. This is why they are currently pressing ahead with a bill which will revert elections for Police and Crime Commissioners and elected mayors back to the FTTP voting system, as they know they will benefit from this change. You can sign a petition against this change here. In the case of the unions, that (see below) overwhelmingly voted against the PR motion put forward at the Labour Party Conference this week it is less clear, as FPTP has been no friend to them, as it has delivered a Labour government in power for only 32 of the last 100 years.
In the case of some unions, there was a lack of support for as there has been no official position decided on PR at their respective conferences. This is likely to be due to voting systems being seen as a subject unrelated to the ‘bread and butter’ issues of industrial relations and terms and conditions of employment. There is also a ‘winner takes all’ culture, where the temptation of the glittering prize of majority government is too tantalising to give up, no matter how unlikely it is to achieve. In the case of Labour, fairness and equality are the cornerstone values of the Party. Therefore, it is odd that , to date, they persist in supporting an electoral system which is neither. With the odds stacked against the Labour Party, they would need to achieve a lead of 11.7% to achieve a majority of one, it seems they will struggle to achieve a fairer more equal society if they don’t seek to put in place a fairer voting system.
Above all, I believe a major barrier to electoral reform is a reluctance to change the current culture of tribalism that exists within politics, to a more consensus based approach. Further, when power has been so hard to achieve for both the Labour Party (and unions who have had their powers relentlessly chipped away by successive Tory governments) there is perhaps an understandable reluctance to seem to give it away.
However, the huge challenges we face such as the looming climate disaster demand consensual, long term actions which won’t be impacted by the ‘stop start’ of FPTP politics. A word of warning. If we cannot find common ground within our own Party, then it will be difficult to find it with others. Tribalism, whatever shade of red you are, will damage us and it will damage the country. Factionalism is a luxury we cannot afford and compromise shouldn’t be seen as a weakness. In order to achieve power, we may just have to give a little of it away.
So how do we get the message across? Well, dry discussions about all the different types of proportional voting systems are unlikely to win anyone over. However, frame it in terms of basic fairness and how everyone’s vote will count and the argument is more likely to cut through.
Recently politics has become polarised by politicians who have played on people’s fears and baser instincts, so consensus may seem like a distant prospect. However, the pandemic has shown us that the is a great deal of empathy and compassion across our communities. The need for change is pressing as we have nearly reached a point where corruption and incompetence, along with a lack of accountability from those in power is being met with a resigned shrug of the shoulders and a view that all politicians are the same.
When apathy wins the Tories win, we must strive to restore people’s faith in politics. A fairer voting system is just the start. We need to reform the House of Lords and replace it with a directly elected chamber representing the whole of the UK. We need to decentralise power from Westminster and place it in our local town halls. We need a justice system which can be accessed equally by all, not just a privileged few. We need a written constitution that sets out the rights of the people and the boundaries to executive power. Above all, Labour need to be bold. If they are, there is a real chance that working with others, equality, empathy, compassion and fairness which are the basics of Labour values will prevail.
1st October 2021
I’m in a union, how can I find out more about the campaign for PR?
You can join the ‘Politics for the Many’ mailing list here.
I want to submit a motion to my union branch to adopt PR.
You can take a look at a template motion here
You can find out more about different voting systems at the Electoral Reform Society website here. Many thanks to the House of Commons Library, who provide a mine of clear and detailed information on a huge variety of subjects. You can read their analysis of the 2019 General Election results here.