A free election, but not a fair one

The 2015 election result shows just how absurdly unfair our voting system is. To change it we need political pressure from a movement for democratic renewal outside of Parliament.  

Peter Evans
26 May 2015

Election odds

The numbers aren't adding up. Flickr/Cellanr. Some rights reserved.

So, the results are in, and an unexpected outcome in some ways. Slim as it is, I don’t think many would have predicted the Tories getting an overall majority! However, in other ways the results of this election were entirely predictable, and one of the most predictable elements was that the distribution of seats would in no way match the distribution of the national share of votes. The SNP, with 1.45 million votes, has received 56 seats. That’s 8.6% of the seats with 4.8% of the votes. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile got 2.41 million votes and 8 seats – 1.23% of the seats with 7.9% of the votes.

UKIP: 3.88 million votes – well over double the SNP vote, 12.6% of the national vote – 1 seat. Greens: 1.15 million votes, 3.8% of the total cast, also 1 seat. That’s 0.15% of seats in the Commons for UKIP, and 0.15% of them for the Greens. The smaller parties, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties, show similar deviations. The SDLP for example has as many seats as Sinn Fein, despite having only 99,800 votes to Sinn Fein’s 176,200.

But what about the big two? Labour, with 30.4% of the vote (9.34 million), got 35.7% of the seats; whilst the Tories – obviously the big winners this time – have 50.09% of the seats with 36.9% of the vote (11.33 million votes). That means the Conservative party has 15% more clout in Parliament compared to the amount of people who wanted to empower them. This gives them just enough power in Parliament for the choice of one third of the voters to dominate the rest. Turnout at this election was 66%, which means that a party which gained the active approval of only around 25% of registered voters dominates Parliament.

To be fair, the 33% who didn’t vote could be argued to have acquiesced to whatever the system gave them. However, this has to be viewed in the context that many don’t bother voting not because they are content  with whatever happens, but because they are aware that their vote is most likely not to count under our system. At least as far as this election is concerned we do not yet know what exactly the ratio is between those who are simply lazy; are happy with whatever the outcome may be; who don’t vote because they believe the system is broken; and who don’t because know they are in too safe a seat for it to matter.

Likewise, for this election at least we do not yet know: how many people voted for the party of their first choice; how many voted tactically to try and keep another party out; how many voted as a protest in order to cut the national share of a party; or how many voted simply to bump the national share of a party they favour.

What our vote even represents is a mess, and there is no consistency of approach when it comes to voting strategies. We cannot therefore even view the figures of national share in a straightforward manner. The Tories may have won 11.33 million votes, yes, but how many of these were votes made against another party? That under a different system might have gone to another party? And the same question applies to every party. To get some idea of this we can look at who comes second in each seat, but again it’s a total stab in the dark. How far the national vote aligns with people’s actual preferences is therefore unclear.

I do not mean to argue here that Labour or the Conservatives do not have substantial support in the country. I am arguing however that they do not enjoy the levels of support that should confer an absolute ability to govern. I am also arguing that it is farcical to call a system democratic that works on the basis that every vote which didn’t go to a winning candidate in a given seat counts for absolutely nothing. The mean average share of the local constituency vote on which an MP was elected to this Parliament was 46.4%. This means that a mean average of 53.6% of people’s votes have not counted towards the composition of this Parliament, regardless of how they voted. This means that 53.6% of the electorate have been effectively disenfranchised. With this context in mind, and bearing in mind the prevalence of safe seats – seats where the vote can essentially be declared before the vote is even held – is it any wonder that so many don’t bother to vote?

Frankly, the First Past the Post system is perverse. With the way it corrupts the national vote – by forcing us to vote with who might win seats in mind rather than just go with our personal first choice; by rewarding geographically compact support and punishing that which is diffused throughout the country; and, most importantly, by disenfranchising the losing votes in every single seat (about two-thirds of us) – it is a joke to call it truly democratic. And this is no new development associated with the rise of new parties such as UKIP and the Greens – in 1983 for example, Labour won 209 seats on 27.6% of the popular vote, whilst the SDP-Liberal Alliance were left with 23 seats from 25.4% of the vote!

With today’s electorate the system does not even reflect people’s choices within the system. The basis of our democracy is representation, but we are left with merely a virtual representation. The votes of 24.3% of us – 36.9% those who actually turned out to vote – are supposedly good enough for the rest of us. Apparently, their choice of candidates will govern in the interests of us all, simply because they are Parliamentarians and their job is to pursue the common good. According to this argument, MPs truly are “right honourable”. Not only will they supposedly adhere to the promises they made to their supporters; they are supposed to simultaneously uphold the common interests of the nation – and that’s before we even add self-interest, lobbying, and outright corruption like cash-for-influence to the equation.

Democracy requires elections to be free and fair. Ours may be free, but they certainly aren’t fair. The current system asks us to entertain a utopian dream about a broken system. The only proper response to this election for those who really care about democracy, and who don’t simply want to ensure the continuation of the status quo, is to support electoral reform towards creating a situation where every voters’ choice really matters. A system where what people want can actually be translated into power in Parliament.

We need to end this system that delivers majority power to the largest minority at the cost of the rest, and replace it with a system that gives every citizen true power to shape the government. The two major parties cannot be trusted to push this much-needed change through off their own backs. Therefore initiatives outside of Parliament, such as Assemblies for Democracy, will be vital in creating the political pressure needed for power to be put back into the vote.

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