We need more than electoral reform, we need a political reformation

Mark Schofield

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

As a liberal democracy in the 21st century, our legal and civic institutions protect us all against discrimination of many kinds. Of course this doesn’t magically banish all discrimination from our society. But it does create a legal framework that expresses a shared conviction – discrimination on the basis of social differences is morally wrong. So how is it still acceptable that 22 million people in this country were discriminated against in June this year? And yet why is it that most of us may not have even realised? I was one of them, were you?

The figure of 22 million is roughly the number of votes cast in the general election which were wasted. (The Electoral Reform Society crunched the numbers). By ‘wasted’ I mean ‘didn’t count towards the actual result’. In any constituency, all the votes cast for candidates who didn’t win are effectively ‘thrown away’ in so far as they count for nothing in terms of representation in the House of Commons. This is why smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and UKIP can win millions of votes and still end up with so few MPs. But that only accounts for the minority of wasted votes.

Most wasted votes are actually cast for the larger parties. Our electoral system for Westminster – ‘first-past-the-post’ – awards a seat to the candidate with the most votes in that constituency. But it doesn’t matter one jot if the winner edges it by 2 votes (North East Fife) or over 30 000 votes (Liverpool Walton). In other words, all those massive majorities piled up by parties in safe seats don’t win them any more power; they are effectively discarded as well. If we add together all the votes ‘wasted on winners’ to all the votes ‘wasted on losers’, we reach the grand total of over 22 million ballots which seemingly could have never existed.

To put that in some context, only about 10 million votes actually made a real difference to how well parties were represented, and hence how power was distributed in the House of Commons after the election. To put it bluntly, less than a third of voters actually determined the result. Which suggest that the orthodox belief that we live in a majoritarian democracy is a rather tendentious interpretation of the facts. Looking at it from the perspective of the 22 million, the UK system looks more like a minoritarian democracy. And if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, perhaps we could just come out and say it: the UK is not yet a genuine democracy.

What I mean by ‘genuine’ democracy is a country committed to political equality. This is more than legal equality plus a universal franchise which simply describes what we have at the moment. Currently we live under a political system which is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a genuine democracy. Political equality is a normative ideal never fully realised: in a true democracy, all voices should be heard. But the effect of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system is to amplify the voices of a few, at the cost of silencing the voices of the many. Or put another way, ‘first-past-the-post’ discriminates against most voters just because of where they happen to live.

No electoral system can affect a perfect translation of votes into seats.  The only way to abolish the geographic discrimination of representative democracy would be to treat the whole country as one big constituency and allocate seats as accurately as possible in proportion to votes. As they’ll always be more votes than seats, some votes will always be wasted. But if we believe in a true democracy (rather than truly believing in UK democracy), it becomes imperative to find a system which is better able to make that translation. Otherwise we end up with political gobbledigook.

Public sentiment may be shifting towards reform. The standard defence of FPTP – that it generates ‘strong, stable, accountable single party government’ – has been weakened by the 2010-15 coalition and the current minority Conservative government (propped up by the DUP at the cost to taxpayers of a billion pounds). In addition, the fracturing of the two-party system, particularly from 2001-2015, means that millions of voters from across the political spectrum have had to face the sober fact that their votes had been well and truly wasted. But it’s not in the electoral interests of either Labour or the Conservatives to commit to electoral reform. The system as it stands rewards political conservatism. Only electoral reform can make new political formations possible. This itself suggests an intriguing strategy to forge a wider alliance of voters for electoral reform. But that would require democrats of the centre-left to be liberal enough to reach out to voters on the right to make common cause.

And what would that common cause be? Campaigners have been arguing the case for reform since the introduction of ‘first-past-the-post’ in 1884. It gains momentum at certain times when the political centre is gaining traction, and then ebbs when the main parties are back in the ascendant. Perhaps electoral reform is still perceived as a marginal debate for political obsessives. What it needs is to be part of a more ambitious vision of political reformation, of which electoral reform will be the jewel. Only when enough people see how our ‘legacy’ political infrastructure creates more problems than it solves will the pressure build to abolish electoral discrimination. I estimate it may take 10 million citizens – from across the political spectrum – to demand a political reformation to usher UK democracy into the 21st century. Who’s in?

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  1. Posted by Maarten van Hardenbroek

    Hear, hear! If one of the large two and a few of the smaller parties would manage to unite behind this cause, highlighting the figures that Schofield mentions, they might finally gain themselves some more MPs. And in the process they might even form a sensible coalition government and move the UK electoral system into the 20th century. Or should that be the 21st?

  2. Posted by Martin Peters

    A good explanation of why FPTP fails. It also means that tactical voting is an unfortunate but necessary response. it is clear to me that in many constituencies an individual centre left vote has more impact if you vote for the party most likely to defeat the Conservatives. The third parties total vote is merely a statistic.