openDemocracyUK

Reform the vote to empower the liberal left

Peter Tatchell says changing Britain’s electoral system would benefit progressive politics.
Peter Tatchell
1 May 2010

Most of the British public are left-of-centre on most issues. For the last half century, liberal and left-leaning parties have won a majority of votes in general elections, but often not a majority of seats. This progressive majority in British politics has been cheated time and time again. Thanks to the unfair voting system, the anti-Tory majority have frequently ended up with a minority of MPs.

Indeed, every government since the 1950s has taken power based on less than 50% of the popular vote. None has won majority public support at the ballot box.

In the 2005 election, Labour won 35% of the vote but bagged 55% of the seats. Of eligible voters, only 22% voted Labour. Yet with the support of only one-fifth of the electorate Labour won a 66-seat majority. This is not democracy. It echoes the gerrymandering and ballot-rigging of two centuries ago, which galvanised the Chartists to campaign for a democratic, representative parliament. The electoral process is ‘rigged.’ In 2005, if you total all the votes cast for the main parties, it took an average 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. Not since the rotten boroughs of the eighteenth century have elections been so corrupt.

This democratic deficit is a direct result of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, which allows the election of MPs and governments with minority support. FPTP enabled Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win landslide majorities based on popular votes of only 35% to 44%.

If there had been a fairer, proportional voting system, we would have never had the stand-alone, single-party governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and, as a result, never had “New” Labour and the ditching of socialism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Recent political history would have been very different - and more progressive.

With proportional representation (PR), neither Thatcher and Major nor Blair and Brown would have been able to form governments without the support of other parties. Supported by only a minority of voters and with only a minority of seats, they would have had to form coalitions, which would have almost certainly prevented policy excesses, such as the poll tax and the Iraq war.

If there had been PR in the 1980s, Thatcher would have had to go into coalition with the Lib Dems and other minor parties (which would have scuppered many of her reactionary policies). Alternatively, Labour might have been able to form a coalition with the Lib Dems and other parties, which would have meant no Conservative government in the 1980s – sparing Britain the social destruction of Thatcherism.

Some defenders of FPTP complain that if we switch to PR Labour might never again win a majority of seats and form a government in its own right. But if Labour can’t persuade a majority of voters, it doesn’t deserve to form a government (ditto the Tories). Democracy is supposed to be about the will of the majority. It cannot be reconciled with a voting system that persistently allows parties with minority support to form governments with often huge majorities.

If the last three elections had been conducted under PR, Labour would not have won an overall majority of seats. But there would have been Green MPs and more Lib Dem, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs. On many issues, these four parties are to the left of the Labour government. If they had been in coalition with Labour since 1997, they would have had a mostly radicalising influence on Blair and Brown, probably resulting in no post office closures, Trident renewal, ID cards, expanded nuclear power, privatisation of public services and no British troops in Iraq.

With PR, the Tories might never rule alone again; thereby preventing a repeat of Thatcherite extremism. We’d be likely to see the election of MPs representing the Greens and possibly radical left parties, as happened under Scotland’s PR system. This would shift the political centre leftwards. Labour would be radicalised because it would have to rule in coalition with Green, left and Liberal Democrat MPs (despite their flaws, the Lib Dems are more left-leaning than Gordon Brown on many issues). Labour and the Lib Dems could end up more or less permanently in power as the major partners in a new progressive ‘traffic light’ coalition of red, orange and green. This is definitely preferable to having the Tories in government and wielding the knife.

A democracy requires a parliament that reflects the people’s will; where the proportion of seats won corresponds to the proportion of votes cast. This means finishing the parliamentary reform process begun by the Chartists.

The election system for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly is a practical example of a fairer electoral process. Electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party list. This combines the accountability of single-member constituencies with additional ‘top-up’ MPs based on the total list vote received by each party; thereby ensuring proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it wins. This system works in Scotland, Wales and London, why can’t we have it at Westminster?

Polls show that a majority of people want a fairer electoral system. It would benefit all progressive people and parties, shifting the political consensus leftwards.

Whichever party wins the upcoming election, the new government should let the people decide by means of a two-stage referendum: first, on whether people want to change the voting system and second, if they do want change, on what kind of PR system they want.

Until we make the voting system fair, our democracy will remain tainted and flawed, and the progressive majority - liberals, lefts and greens - will often be out of government, even when they have won a majority of the popular vote.

* More information about the voting reform campaign: http://www.voteforachange.co.uk/content/index and about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns: www.petertatchell.net

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