Saturday 9 May 2015

The campaign for fair votes

Let me begin this article by dispelling the predictable Tory accusation that I'm only complaining about the voting system now because I'm being a "sore loser". This claim is very easy to dismiss on the grounds that the biggest gains under a fair voting system would be for a party that I strongly oppose (UKIP which got just one seat in return for 3,881,129 votes) and the biggest losers under a fairer redistribution of the votes would be a party that just won a landslide victory with an anti-austerity campaign (the SNP got an incredible 56 seats in return for 1,454,436 votes).

Winners and losers

If the votes of the two most adversely affected parties (UKIP and the Green Party) are combined, they picked up over 5 million votes in 2015 (16.4% of the total) but got only two seats (0.3% of the total). Anyone who tries to claim that this is a fair representation of the wishes of the public must be utterly delusional.

The Liberal Democrats are another party that fare badly under our unfair voting system. In 2010 they took 23% of the vote but ended up with just 8.7% of the seats. In 2015 they picked up 2,415,888 votes (7.9%) but won only 8 seats (1.2%).

To put this into perspective, our shockingly disproportionate system rewarded the Tory party with one MP for every 34,348 votes cast in their favour, the Lib-Dems got one MP for every 301,986 votes in their favour, the Green Party got just one MP in return for well over one million votes and UKIP got just one MP in return for almost four million votes!

Who on earth would even try to defend a voting system that requires one party to achieve 113 times as many votes per MP as another party? (other than a supporter of the party that benefits of course).

Until the incredible rise of the SNP in Scotland in 2015, the two main beneficiaries of the outdated and hugely unrepresentative Westminster voting system were the Tory party and the Labour Party who have taken turns at running the government for the last 100+ years, which is an answer in itself to the question of why this ridiculously outdated and unrepresentative system has never been modernised.

The UK is one of the only countries in the world to use such an old fashioned and unrepresentative voting system. Almost every other democracy on Earth uses one form of proportional representation or another. The UK stands alone as the the only major economy to be ruled by such an outdated and unrepresentative system.

Majority governments

Defenders of our hopelessly old fashioned and unrepresentative system will try to claim that it is a good thing because it promotes single party governments, however (even if we accept the faulty premise that single party rule is by definition a good thing), if this is achieved at the expense of disenfranchising literally millions of voters, then it's not a good tradeoff at all.
If we look at the last two majority governments (Blair in 2005 & Cameron in 2015) we find that our unfair and apathy inducing system elevates Prime Ministers to absolute power with shockingly low levels of public mandate. In 2005 Tony Blair was handed a comfortable majority (54.6% of the seats) with the backing of just 21.6% of the eligible vote. In 2015 David Cameron was handed a majority government with the support of just 24.4% of the eligible vote. The number of votes won by both of these Prime Ministers was massively outweighed by the huge numbers of people so disillusioned with the system that they didn't even vote (38.6% in 2005, 33.9% in 2015).

What kind of person defends a system that allows one political party to take significantly more than half of the seats in parliament when they couldn't even convince a quarter of the public to vote for them?

Local connections

One of the other commonly posited arguments against reforming our outdated voting system is that a more proportional system would "break" the local connection between politicians and their constituents.

This argument has some merit because accountability to one's constituents is a vital part of any functioning democracy. However it is still a poor argument because it is easy to conceive a proportional electoral system which would maintain, if not dramatically improve the relationship between politicians and their local constituents.

The solution I prefer is the introduction of larger multi-member constituencies. Let's say that the current 650 constituencies are combined into around 120 constituencies of around six times the size, but returning six MPs each.

Under this system the constituent would no longer be limited to just one MP, who in all probability they didn't even vote for (only a tiny percentage of constituencies have ever returned a candidate with more than 50% of the eligible vote). The constituent would have the choice to contact any number of the six local MPs representing various political parties. Thus if one of your local MPs fails or refuses to deal with your issue adequately, you can approach an MP from another party and see if their response is any better.

Of course the precise details of how a system like this would operate would need to be ironed out, but I challenge anyone to argue that being limited to just one MP (representing a party that you quite possibly hate) is a more engaging political system than one in which you can "shop around" and find the local MP who best responds to your needs.

If any Tory does try to argue against a system that provides the electorate with far more choice, and provides the politicians with much greater incentives to meet the needs of their constituents (competition), then there is a question you can really stump them with: Why does the Tory party actively promote "choice" and "competition" within the national health system as desirable objectives, but favour a political system that severely restricts voter choice and eliminates competition between MPs entirely?

The answer is obvious. They prefer the choice-restricting, uncompetitive, apathy inducing, desperately unrepresentative system we have now because it is rigged in favour of their party. They like their "safe seats" where their politicians can ride the political gravy train safe in the knowledge that they are completely insulated from any kind of direct competition from rival MPs until they retire and get replaced by another career politician from the same party. They obviously won't be able to admit as much, but it might be fun watching their bizarre mental contortions as they try to think up some other excuse. 

Party Lists

Another common argument against proportional representation is the objection to the idea of party lists (where the political party gets to decide which candidates are the first to get selected when the votes are shared out between the parties). This is a strong argument because the whole idea of party lists is utterly abhorrent. The electorate should get to decide which candidates are best, not have the candidates pre-selected for them by the political parties.

There is a solution to this problem because it is easy to conceive a proportional system that uses no party lists whatever.

If we return to the idea of the six member constituency, it is entirely possible for the parties to include several names on the ballot paper, and leave it up to the electorate to decide which of them to support. The seats would then be distributed fairly, but to the individual MPs from each party that got the most votes, not to the MPs from the top of the party list.

The beauty of such a system would be that supporters of a particular political party would be able to choose the best candidate to suit their needs. Perhaps they might choose the candidate who lives nearest to their neighbourhood; perhaps the candidate who is the most responsive to their inquiries; perhaps the candidate who was a trusted local MP under the old system; or perhaps the candidate from a particular wing of the party.

If we imagine that the voter is a Tory supporter, they could choose to support a candidate from the libertarian wing of the party (someone like David Davis or Steve Baker), or maybe they would prefer to vote for someone from the authoritarian-right of the party (someone like Theresa May or Iain Duncan Smith)?

Under this kind of system the political parties would become much more responsive to the political orientation of their supporters. If lots of libertarian Tories get elected, the party would be under pressure to become a much greater champion of individual freedom, and if lots of left-wing Labour candidates got elected, perhaps the party might start moving back towards championing social democracy instead of offering watered-down Thatcherism.

Minor Parties

One problem that would affect the six member constituency system is that smaller parties would still struggle to return any MPs. If for example the TUSC or the Pirate Party ended up getting 1% of the vote nationwide, it's unlikely they'd break the threshold in any one constituency, but a fair system would demand that they should get something like 1% of the MPs.

It is possible to resolve this problem too without resorting to party lists. A small number of extra seats could be set aside to make sure the distribution of seats to votes is more or less fair. The extra seats would then be distributed to the the most popular candidates representing these smaller parties, so if the TUSC candidate in Liverpool got 6% of the vote, but just missed out on the last of the six seats, they would be in contention for one of the additional seats. This means they would still represent the constituency of Liverpool (but as an additional member), and they would still have been selected by the public as the best that party has to offer - not as the result of a party list.

A cross party issue

The campaign for fairer votes isn't a left-right political issue, it's a matter of fairness. To illustrate the point that it's not a tribalist political issue, the parties that support the campaign for fair votes include UKIP (hard-right, anti-EU), The Liberal Democrats (centre-right, pro-EU), Plaid Cymru (centre-left, Welsh nationalist), The SNP (centre-left, Scottish nationalist), The Green Party (centre-left, EU reformists) and the TUSC (hard-left, anti-EU).

If all of these divergent parties agree that the current voting system is totally unfair, leaving only the two parties that have historically benefited from it 
(Labour and the Tories) standing in opposition to fair votes, then it's obvious that it's not a tribalistic political issue, it's a matter of political freedom: The freedom to have our votes actually count for something, rather than being almost always discarded unless we chose to vote for Labour or the Tories (who bagged 86.5% of the seats between them in 2015 after convincing only 44.5% of the electorate to actually vote for them).

What can we do about it?

History shows us that powerful elites do not just hand the public greater freedoms of their own accord. These freedoms have to be fought for and demanded until the establishment is forced to concede them.

A fairer, more representative voting system is indisputably a freedom. A fairer voting system would free millions of people from the tyranny of living in a "safe seat" where their votes simply don't matter because one candidate is guaranteed to win every time until they retire to be replaced by another career politician from the same political party.

If we want a fairer system we have to demand it and not give up until we get it.

You can help to raise awareness of the fight for fairer votes in many ways.

  • You can talk to your friends and work colleagues about it.
  • You can Tweet about fairer votes using the hashtag #FairVotesNow
  • You can become an active member of a political party that is demanding a fairer voting system
  • You can write to your elected politicians about it using this link (feel free to link to or quote from this article, I don't give a stuff about copyright)

 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.

The rise of the non-traditional political parties
The terrifying scale of political illiteracy in the UK
The inspirational rise of Podemos in Spain
The annihilation of PASOK in Greece
What is the "Pay as You Feel" principle
The case for propotional pay for MPs
The case for evidence based policy

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