openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Progressives must rally together to demand democracy

British politics is utterly broken. Our parties must find a way to find a way to renew it.

Molly Scott Cato
17 August 2020
The Queen’s Speech, House of Lords. Picture: Parliament UK, via a (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

It is easy to dismiss a Green politician campaigning for a fair voting system as self-interested, but this is not about my job, my party having a fair share of power, or even the gross injustice of my vote in parliamentary elections having been trodden into the dirt in every election over the past 40 years. It is about claiming the right to live in a democracy: that is a duty not just for me but for every British citizen.

The impact on the Green Party of first-past-the-post (a horse-race, not a democratic ballot) is made clear in the Electoral Reform Society’s analysis of the 2019 general election Voters Left Voiceless, showing that a full 98.5% of Green votes were ignored, i.e. had no impact on the final outcome and 96.2% of Green votes were unrepresented, i.e. were cast for candidates who were not elected. It takes more votes to elect a Green than to elect a politician from any of the parties in the Westminster Parliament. According to analysis by the House of Commons Library, ‘In 2019 the Conservatives got one seat for every 38,264 votes, while Labour got one seat for every 50,837 votes. It took many more votes to elect a Lib Dem (336,038) and Green MP (866,435), but far fewer to elect an SNP MP (25,883)’. 

First-past-the-post elections are what a game theorist would call ‘repeated games’: as somebody who supports a party that is neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee you get the opportunity to be beaten up repeatedly. We can all recall the feeling that comes when a general election is announced: first the excitement unavoidable for a political hack, and then the sense of doom at what the ‘two-party squeeze’ will do to you and your voters. The outrage of ‘tactical voting’ – voting against your interests and your better judgement because the electoral system forces you to – is a torture unique to majoritarian systems like ours. It is a torture that should be put back in the middle ages where it belongs. As 21st-century British citizens we should have the right to make a free choice at elections – what else can democracy mean if not that?

This bruising experience also explains why Greens have been at the forefront of building cross-party cooperation. In 2017 we made the case for a Progressive Alliance, an electoral kamikaze strategy that gave our loyal voters an excuse to abandon us when the two-party squeeze came on. In 2019, we were part of the pro-Brexit Unite to Remain process, with the Liberal Democrats standing aside for us in 10 seats, including my own in Stroud. As a proof of concept for cross-party cooperation this was powerful, but without Labour we didn’t have sufficient power to shift any seats.

So why do Labour repeatedly refuse such cooperation even when, as the data above show, their votes are also under-represented by an electoral system that works primarily for the Tories? During the fevered election campaign in Stroud I was amazed to hear a Labour councillor I had worked with closely saying that our cooperation on the local council would be blown apart unless I stood down, depriving the thousands of Green voters in Stroud of the right to make a free choice. At the time I dismissed this as absurd hyperbole but I now see it as an insight into Labour party thinking.

Many Labour MPs will say that they support proportional representation, but their party policy is still to support the first-past-the-post system, a position that Yanis Varoufakis has called ‘contemptible’. But it is not irrational. Labour are consciously choosing to allow these dangerous Conservatives to hold power because they fear loss of the power granted to them by the two-party system. No doubt their private polling confirms what analysis by ERS for the Green Party makes clear: 8% of Labour’s voters in 2019 would have voted Green under a fair electoral system.

The Electoral Reform Society ran an interesting statistical analysis projecting seats if people had expressed their preference under an Additional Member System (Like the Scottish parliament). It suggested that the Green Party would have achieved 38 parliamentary seats and that AMS would have knocked the Tories back to 284 seats, depriving them of an overall majority and making a coalition government essential. I would choose such a Parliament and a non-Tory coalition government; but Labour would rather let the Tories into power than share power.

Because in my South West home citizens choose to exercise their right to vote for a range of parties, more votes are thrown away by our anti-democratic system here than anywhere else. The Electoral Reform Society used a metric to demonstrate this called the DV score showing ‘the extent to which an election result deviates from proportionality, i.e. from what it would look like if seats were proportional to votes gained by each party.’ In England, this DV score is highest in the South West at 34.6 compared with 17.5 for England as a whole, indicating that a third of the seats in our region were unearned, and unearned by Tories who ruthlessly exploited the first-past-the post system to hold 48 of the 55 seats in our region on barely more than half the vote. Ironically, given that Labour continue to refuse to support proportional representation in spite of increasing pressure, it is Labour voters who are more disenfranchised than voters for any other party.

The party’s review of the 2019 election was honest about the scale of the task ahead of Labour in winning in 2024: they will need to make 82 net gains for even the slimmest of parliamentary majorities, with a rise in Labour support as large as that seen in 1997. The sad thing is that Labour still believe they must go it alone, set on taking this risk against massive odds rather than cooperating with others. We simply cannot risk the damage this will do to our country and must all mobilise for a united front in the next general election. This could be based around a shared platform of constitutional reform and a pre-election arrangement so that only one candidate supporting these vital reforms was opposing the Tory in each constituency.

Of course, when we talk about electoral reform we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the fundamental transformation that our political system is crying out for. The absurd mash-up of toffs and cronies in the House of Lords is even more anachronistic, even more anti-democratic. And the absence of a written constitution means that authoritarian politicians like Johnson can try it on with ruses like ‘proroguing Parliament’, hoping the apathy or weariness of ‘the people’ will allowing the outrage to pass. I would also support much wider use of citizens’ assemblies as an addition to, not a substitute for, representative democracy, as they were used in the Irish abortion referendum. The exact content of the joint platform for constitutional transform is open to debate. The urgent necessity of agreeing it is transparently clear.

In their book How Democracies Die, US political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt give examples of how, in various different societies, democracy was saved by politicians who were committed to it putting their differences aside and working together in the interests of the democratic system itself. In the UK our task is somewhat different: we need democrats to come together to build democracy for the first time in the UK. As Gandhi said when asked what he thought of British civilization: ‘I think it would be a good idea’.

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