openDemocracyUK

Our electoral system is failing us

A proportional voting system would give us a parliament full of vitality. Instead we’ve got a two-tone debating chamber and a government of thin legitimacy.

Jeremy Fox
13 May 2015
Map of the 2015 UK election results.

2015 election results. Wikipedia/Italay90, Cryptographic.2014. Some rights reserved.Every national election comes with a depressing reminder of the lacunae in our so-called democratic system, and of something perhaps even more dispiriting: namely, that our political leaders favour democracy only when it favours them. 

For a very long time – as long as anyone alive can possibly remember – our first past the post (FPTP) method of selecting MPs has favoured Labour and the Tories, and it continues to do so. These two parties are joined, for the time being at least, by the SNP, which, through no fault of its own and perhaps against its own principles, now enjoys the same sumptuous benefits of the system. Here’s why.

(Columns below: Vote share %, Seat share %, Seats, Proportional seats*)

Conservatives

37

51

331

241

Labour

31

36

232

202

Lib Dems

8

1+

8

50 – 52

UKIP

13

<1

1

80 – 85

Plaid Cymru

1

<1

3

<1(0)

SNP

5

9

56

33

DUP

<1%

1+

8

<1(0)

Green

4

<1

1

24 – 26

* Number of seats proportional to shares of the vote. All the figures quoted here and below are rounded for ease of reading.

Cameron’s Conservatives have secured a majority with the second lowest share of the vote in modern UK history. Only Labour’s 2005 victory – the third with Tony Blair at the helm – has won with a lower vote share: a miserable 35%. Both parties are fully aware of the unrepresentative nature of these outcomes, and for all their mutual enmity have tacitly colluded in ensuring that matters do not change.

The referendum on electoral reform that took place during the last parliament – described by Nick Clegg as a “miserable little compromise” – offered the Alternative Vote (AV) as sole replacement for FPTP. It was an option uniquely capable of producing even less democratic results than the status quo, because it allows for a candidate to be elected without being anyone’s first choice on the ballot paper. It is not a proportional system.

Having made sure that AV was the only available alternative, Cameron and co had every reason to campaign against it. After it was duly rejected, Labour and the Tories alike would have breathed a sigh of relief that they could return to fighting each other safe in the knowledge that while others might occasionally get into the ring, their role would be confined to mopping the brows of the prime contestants.

A House full of vitality

As the BBC’s electoral map of the country shows, England is swathed in Tory blue, with mere splashes of other colours to show the presence of Labour and the smaller contenders. But as the above table demonstrates, a true map of voter choice at the election would be more complex and varied.

Most unsettling of the statistics is that, on a strictly proportional basis, UKIP would have over 80 MPs in the new parliament, the Lib Dems would have around 50, and the Greens would certainly have over 20. The result would not have been a two-tone debating chamber presided over by a government of thin legitimacy, but a House full of vitality, of differing opinion, of argument and compromise; and above all one that reflected with a degree of accuracy the country that it purports to represent.

The media would not then have confined themselves to dismissing Nigel Farage as a failure, but would have been forced to acknowledge his party’s remarkable success in garnering the support of so many voters. Similar acknowledgements would necessarily have gone to the Greens, while the Lib Dems – long familiar with the inequities of FPTP – would have fewer wounds to lick.

What of the SNP? Since its share of the vote in the UK as a whole was only 5%, it clearly has more MPs in the Commons that it would have achieved on a proportional basis. However, the story becomes more startling if we consider solely the SNP’s electoral performance in Scotland. 

(Columns below: Vote share %, Seat share %, Seats, Proportional seats)

SNP

50

95

56

30 – 31

Labour

24

2

1

14 – 15

Lib Dems

8

2

1

5

Conservatives

15

2

1

With half the Scottish votes, the SNP took 95% of the seats. While there can be no doubt about the SNP victory, almost a quarter of Scottish voters opted for Labour, and for the latter to be left with only one seat is hardly a recommendation for the democratic quality of the system. Both Tories and Lib Dems in Scotland also have some reason to feel aggrieved, even though their parties flunked or avoided the chance to create a more equitable system.

A rejection of the major parties

What are we to make of an electoral process that distorts to such a large extent the expressed will of voters? For many years the UK has placidly drifted along with FPTP, partly no doubt out of inertia but perhaps also because, until recently, parties have not been able to win workable majorities with vote shares below 40%. Between 1945 and 2001, the average vote share of the winning party was around 44%. By contrast, for the last three elections, Labour and Tory shares have averaged 32% and 35% respectively. Yet they have remained the only credible candidates for control of the office.

The rise of UKIP, the Greens and the SNP demonstrates clearly enough that the old dispensation is crumbling in the hearts and minds of the electorate. No matter what the colours on the map suggest, Scotland is far from alone in rejecting the traditional parties, and for reasons that are not hard to find. Together, Labour and the Tories have presided over a steady erosion of the UK’s industrial capacity, the sale of UK assets to decision-makers located elsewhere, a marked decrease in productivity, the marketisation of the NHS, growing levels of inequality, and an unhealthy financialisation of the UK economy. At the same time, they have dithered pathetically over important issues such as the nationwide demand for housing and social infrastructure, airport capacity and energy investment.

Where they have been spectacularly active, on the other hand, has been in involving the country in unpopular and expensive foreign wars, and in creating a messy, rhetorically juvenile relationship both with the European Union and between Scotland and the rest of the UK (especially England). Readers will be able to add their own examples of recent government failures and misguided policy initiatives.

‘We Englishmen are very proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was bestowed upon us by Providence. No other country is so favoured as this country.’ So we are informed by Mr Podsnap, one of Dickens’ memorable buffoons. The author obviously considered our political arrangements to be as ridiculous as the character that voices this absurdity. He wrote those words 150 years ago, but they could have been written yesterday.

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