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When is a democracy not a democracy? When it’s in Britain

Democracy is supposed to protect the interests of the people. In Britain, it does the exact opposite: routinely working against the interests of the many, in favour of the few.

'Take Back Parliament' protest after 2010 general election. Flickr/Jasn. Some rights reserved.

Imagine a country where the views of well over half of the electorate are discounted and treated as an irrelevance. Imagine a government in which well over half of the MPs are locked into place for life, depending entirely on where their constituency happens to be. Imagine a political system in which alternative parties have no chance of making any serious impact, despite gaining the support of more and more people and the two major parties being in ever-deepening decline. And imagine a so-called democracy where, despite a demonstrable majority against right-wing neo-liberalism having been in place for decades, that very thing has been implemented by both its major parties, with disastrous consequences for the country and public policy. That so-called democracy is in Britain.

Over the next few weeks, the Conservative and Labour parties will focus all their resources, all their policies, on no more than 100,000 voters out of an electorate of approximately 46 million. In both cases, the aim will be to eke out not a majority – nowhere near a majority – but around 35% of the vote. Electors will be told that if they vote for their first choice, they might well end up with the option they least want, so should vote for their second choice instead. Even, in many parts of the UK, their third choice. They must vote not for what they want, but against what they don’t want – despite the latter option having failed to protect the interests of the majority for almost four decades.

After the election, politicians will utter platitudes about how they must re-engage the electorate with the political process and regain trust in politics. Then they will go straight back to doing the same old wilfully self-interested things, and continue to uphold a medieval system designed to lock in the status quo forever. This is a system that disenfranchises the public from their supposed representatives, with consequences far, far beyond the ballot box. Yet which, incomprehensibly, almost no one ever talks about.

Democracy is supposed to protect the interests of the people. In Britain, it does the exact opposite: routinely working against the interests of the many, in favour of the few. First Past The Post (FPTP) doesn’t merely lock the public out of democracy. It results in policy after policy from both major parties that do the country enormous harm, and divide it not so much down the middle, as between the wealthiest and the rest.

Consider this. Since 1979, the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus has been implemented, consolidated, and is now accepted by all three of Britain’s traditional parties – despite there being no evidence that the majority of the British public actually supports it. Over the same timeframe, economic discourse and analysis in the UK has favoured Tory trickle-down economics and monetarism – despite inequality having increased massively; despite social mobility having remained so static that it is now the worst in the Western world; despite each new intake of MPs coming from narrower degrees in class than their predecessors; despite a whole generation now being increasingly unlikely to own their own homes: the first generation in modern history to be less well-off than their parents; despite even the Union itself now being in clear and present danger.

How has this happened? It’s not that the British public has shifted dramatically to the right. It’s that its electoral system has. In any genuine democracy, not only would the split of the left in the early 1980s have been of no major consequence, it would have been a demonstrably good thing, allowing electors more real choice. But under FPTP, its consequences were a disaster. With two parties now competing on the left, and only one on the right, it enabled the Conservatives to gain huge majorities with only around 42% of the vote, and forced Labour to move ever further rightwards to have any hope of winning, turning it into something almost unrecognisable. So many protest, rightly so, that “I didn't leave Labour. Labour left me” – but what they don’t understand is why.

FPTP is so disproportionate, so wildly unrepresentative, that general election after general election come down to no more than 100 marginal seats. Swing voters in these constituencies aren’t in the centre; they’re not the median of the entire electorate. By and large, they’re on the centre-right or further right: middle-aged or older homeowners with concerns over healthcare, pensions and immigration. So what do the Tories and Labour do? They design almost their entire agenda around the wishes of this small group. That’s why the Conservatives, for all their top-down reorganisation, have yet to destroy the NHS. That’s why Labour proclaims the need for “controls on immigration”. And that’s why neither party will even touch pensioners, the most influential voting demographic in the UK by a long way. Not even Labour dares to broach the appalling impact of this government on those least able to sustain it. Benefit sanctions are vote-winners in swing constituencies; so benefit sanctions there must be, even when the consequences for the poor, the sick, the disabled and mentally ill should shame any so-called civilised society.

  Image from Labour party website

The poor? They don’t count in Britain’s electoral system – they’re an irrelevance. Instead, both parties wax lyrical about “Britain’s hard-working families”; both need to be seen as on the side of these middle or higher income workers. Those who can’t find work or are too ill to do so? Nobody speaks or cares about them. They don’t make the difference under FPTP  – so they may as well not exist as far as public policy and discourse are concerned.

The obsession with keeping homeowners happy is what leads to Conservative pledges on inheritance tax (which panicked Gordon Brown into failing to call an early general election in 2007, and have been repeated last week), and grotesquely, to the extraordinary, ongoing failure to build desperately needed housing over the last 30 years, or take any action whatsoever on maximum rents, buy-to-let landlords, or a land value tax. Why? If demand overwhelms supply, the demographic that decides British general elections benefits, while the majority are impoverished by extortionate, ludicrous rent and house prices. In any democracy, the interests of that majority would be protected. Under FPTP, those of profiteers are instead.

All this, of course, is also why the Tories unbelievably announced not a desperately needed mass build of new homes; but the forced sale of social housing. This kills two birds with one stone: it inflates the property bubble even further, while reaching out to younger, aspirational swing voters. The ‘right to buy’ sounds wonderful – until you realise that under a mountain of mortgage-related debt, what goes up must inevitably come crashing down, to say nothing of the crisis levels of housing shortages which David Cameron’s party are actively encouraging.

Quite what the government is going to do when, 30 or 40 years from now, it is faced with a whole generation of pensioners who need housing benefit just to live, heaven only knows. But that’s what happens when the common good is ignored; and FPTP forces it to be so. Just as, with affluent swing voters desirous of high quality public services, but wholly unwilling to see their taxes rise and in favour of light-touch regulation, the last Labour government embarked on a long-term programme of expenditure without the structural means to pay for it. The economy grew bloated on house prices and consumer debt; Labour failed to save money for a rainy day or regulate the banks; and the crash (or at least, an inability to protect Britain from its consequences) was the result.

This wasn’t because Gordon Brown didn’t understand economics. It was because, had New Labour supplied a tougher approach to regulation and a much more honest one to tax, most of those swing voters wouldn’t have voted for it. Thus the interests of the minority were protected at the expense of the country, as they have been once more under the current government. 64% of voters (and close to 80% of the entire electorate) did not vote Conservative in 2010. Yet a nine-tenths Tory government – waging disproportionate war on the poor with consequences of the most grievous kind for social structures, communities and the alleged safety net – was the outcome.

Here, of course, proponents of FPTP would interject with: “But we’ve had a coalition since 2010! And in proportional systems, coalitions formed through backroom deals would be the norm!” Except that:

(1) In countries with proportional voting systems, alliances are formed before, not after elections: the illegitimacy of this coalition lies in so many having voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out, not let them in

(2) The Lib Dems, used to Britain’s endemically tribal, adversarial system, committed the fundamental, fatal error of not appreciating that for a coalition to be formed, they – not the Tories – held all the cards; so if the Tories did not make large concessions in their direction, they should not have joined with them. They should have left David Cameron to hold together a minority government requiring cross-party agreement at vote after vote: an outcome not remotely at odds with genuine democracy, which prevents policy being railroaded through against the will of the majority (in this case, 64% of the electorate);

(3) Vastly more proportional systems already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the result of which has been a vastly more consensual, grown-up approach to politics. If Northern Ireland – with all its ancient sectarian enmity – can do this, why on Earth can’t the rest of the UK?

At Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, two baying mobs hurl abuse at each other and behave like a pack of hyenas. The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, refers to Westminster as “Hogwarts gone wrong”: a legislature entirely disconnected from the general public. Parliaments in other countries are open and accessible to the people. At Holyrood, First Minister’s Questions take place in an atmosphere unrecognisable from that of the House of Commons, despite all the competing passions which the Scottish referendum and its aftermath have generated. Scottish politics are now more representative of the people than ever before (because Holyrood’s electoral system ensures that all votes count). Whereas Westminster’s adversarial nature (in which MPs shout at one another while competing for a smaller and smaller space in the political spectrum inhabited by those 100,000 swing voters) turns millions off. It is increasingly filled by career politicians who look the same, sound the same, whose families supported them through university degrees and unpaid internships, went on to work for think tanks, NGOs or MPs, and who – raised under the Thatcherite consensus enforced by FPTP – have little or no conception of the reality of life for tens of millions of Britons.

Not only that, but if someone from outside that privileged, professional politician’s background wants to stand for election, it almost solely depends not on what they stand for, but where they live. Marginal constituencies are the exception, not the rule; the bulk of MPs are beneficiaries of lifelong sinecures if they happen to live in not so much safe seats as rotten boroughs, where it doesn't matter how little or how much campaigning they do, how little or how much work they perform for those they are supposed to represent. The expenses scandal, hardly surprisingly, was the result of this; the almost total failure to do much about it, likewise.

Goodness knows how many talented people are lost entirely to political life as a result of such an antiquated system: if you don’t agree with Labour’s centre-right platform or the Tories’ much further right agenda, there’s no point in seeking election. You have no chance of ever changing anything, for without first achieving power, how can reform ever happen?

Image from Political Compass. Some rights reserved.

In the late 1990s, Tony Blair had the chance to implement the findings of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform. He failed to do so. Labour’s narrow party political interest was vastly more important to it than the public interest – than something that actually represented the will of the people. As it was then, so it remains now: only a handful of Labour politicians speak openly about the need for reform, and even then the focus – bizarrely – is only on local government elections. Not, perish the thought, despite unparalleled levels of public disenchantment with their representatives, on Westminster.

In 2011 even the Lib Dems, the only major party that had long stood for constitutional and electoral reform, entirely sold out. Disgracefully, despite having continually rejected the Alternative Vote (AV) as a “miserable little compromise”, they attempted to inflict it on the country. In fact, AV is even worse: it’s the only electoral system anywhere which is frequently more unrepresentative than FPTP, and produces bizarre outcomes in Australia and even in the Labour leadership election, which Ed Miliband ‘won’ despite David Miliband receiving more first-preference votes. Even now, extraordinary numbers of people believe Britain rejected ‘proportional representation’ at the referendum; yet AV is about as far removed from PR as it’s possible to conceive.

In committing this appalling volte-face over his party’s most cherished aspiration – a desire to turn Britain into a representative democracy at last – Nick Clegg set the cause of electoral reform back decades. Now, no party wants anything to do with it – yet what could be more important than democracy? Especially when FPTP has resulted not in ‘strong, stable government’, but in bad, divisive, unpopular, unrepresentative government, set against the backdrop of an angry, anti-political, even apolitical, climate, in which the will of the majority is ignored, and anyone left of centre has no major party to vote for.

Consider: at every election since 1979, had PR been in place, every single share of the vote would’ve been considerably different. It’s obvious that the Lib Dems (or their forerunners, the Alliance) would’ve received much higher support had there been any point in voting for them: had their seat share actually reflected their vote share. In 1983, Labour was granted 209 seats with 27.6% of the vote, the Alliance only 23 seats with 25.4%. And without tactical voting – without electors throughout the country forced into voting against something, rather than for something – again, the results would’ve changed dramatically. The 30-35% of support which both major parties lay claim to now probably isn’t even close to what would occur under a proportional system; both enjoy only small amounts of enthusiastic public backing, yet both continue to dominate the political landscape because of a wholly iniquitous system.

In 1987, despite 58% of voters, and almost 70% of the total electorate, failing to vote Tory, the poll tax was the result. More than that: had PR been in place in 2001, Blair would have been prevented from taking Britain to war in Iraq. No decision has done more to damage Britain’s reputation abroad, or to disenchant the public at home. Under PR, the strength of the Lib Dems would’ve meant that the split in the Labour party would’ve proven decisive. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Blair would’ve even considered war had the Parliamentary arithmetic been against him.

That’s what proportional systems do. They protect against bad, unrepresentative public policy, and ensure that the wishes of all voters – not just those in marginal constituencies – are taken into account. In Germany, whose electoral system was actually designed by the British in the late 1940s, this has helped build a sustainable economy for the long term in which no one is cut off or left behind. And even if its constitution didn’t prevent it from going to war, the presence of the Greens in coalition with Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats would certainly have done. German politics are so non-tribal, mature and focused on the common good that Angela Merkel even formed a Grand Coalition with the SDP in 2005, unthinkable in Britain, yet which succeeded and got things done for the benefit of the whole country.

And in Uruguay, the Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front), in place since 2004, have slashed poverty and inequality and maintained constant, at times dramatic, economic growth. Again, its proportional system protects against bad policy. The essentially social democratic FA has only remained in power by pursuing a centrist economic approach, encouraging foreign investment and controlling inflation. If it moved too far to the left, its two rivals on the centre and centre-right would combine at Presidential run-offs to keep it out of office. All parties of government in all genuine democracies need to focus on the centre ground – but in the UK, it isn’t found in the middle of the whole electorate, but on the centre-right, where those precious 100,000 voters reside.

So appalling is this state of affairs, it’s done more to precipitate increasingly likely Scottish independence than anything else. Scotland voted heavily Labour at every election between 1979 and 2010 and the Tories were wiped out after 1997. Yet because of FPTP it was rewarded with the Tories at five of those elections and ‘Tory lite’ at the other three. Entirely understandably, given that the three Westminster parties no longer appear to represent Scotland’s interests – and obsess over southern, centre-right voters instead because of FPTP – the Scottish electorate has plainly had enough. The looming SNP landslide will inevitably force matters to a head only eight months after the independence referendum.

Not only that, but with Labour forced by FPTP to focus on England, not Scotland, and having grown very complacent over many decades regarding its support north of the border, it is now palpably under-resourced in Scotland, even what we might term under-messaged. Twice over the last fortnight Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, has simply lied to the public: first over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘support for the Tories’ which never was; then even telling the electorate that Labour wouldn’t make cuts in Scotland, when its own UK manifesto says it will.

Like all his predecessors as Scottish Labour leader since the late, much lamented Donald Dewar, Murphy is out of his depth and inadequate, wholly unable to understand a rapidly changing political landscape all around him. But Labour’s leaders in Scotland have continually been so awful at a time that not one, but two SNP leaders have been hugely popular is precisely because the party focuses all its energies on the south, again as a result of FPTP.

Chuka Umunna, sometimes hailed as Britain’s future answer to Barack Obama, plays very well in suburban, metropolitan seats – yet not only did he have no compunction in throwing Murphy under a bus and publicly humiliating him on the BBC (with shattering consequences for any remaining Labour hopes in Scotland), but in September, the very day after the referendum, he could only name two Labour MSPs.

Under FPTP, Scotland has been of no consequence to Labour, so naturally, it’s stopped caring about or even attempting to understand it. Even its rallying call of “vote SNP, get Tories” only draws loud attention to the very thing which has done so much to break the UK apart. Labour hasn’t protected Scotland from the ravages of neo-liberalism over the last 35 years. It can’t and won’t do so now, and in a so-called democracy, it publicly warns the electorate against voting for who they want! There could scarcely be a better advertisement for PR, and in the event of independence, PR – real self-determination, real choice, and real representation – is what Scottish voters will at long last be granted.

Elsewhere in the UK the rest of the electorate, just as disenfranchised by FPTP, but without a force remotely as powerful as the SNP to get behind, flail around helplessly in all directions, searching for someone or something to blame. Rather than listen to these voters and heed their concerns, deeply cynical politicians and a compliant media (whose owners and most of whose employees are beneficiaries of the Greed Is Good politics of the last two generations) instead deflect them towards the easy targets of Europe or immigration – the latter a problem only because of the continued prioritisation of rentier classes in southern England and woeful failure to rebalance the economy – while the public is left attacking almost all MPs for being ‘out of touch’. Remarkably, their focus is never on the very thing that rigs the entire process in the first place: the electoral system.

During Thursday night’s televised leaders’ debate, the popularity of the three anti-austerity speakers was obvious. There is a real thirst out there for something different – and a much larger natural constituency for it than is ever appreciated. But under FPTP, those who want something different are given no voice, no stake and no chance of any real change.

So as you watch the media provide wall-to-wall coverage of the next two weeks, and Labour and the Conservatives trade announcement after announcement, rebuttal after rebuttal, remember: this isn’t for your benefit. It’s for the benefit of around 100,000 people in no more than 100 marginal constituencies. Nobody else counts; the views of a massive majority are ignored. Why are British politics broken? It’s the electoral system, stoopid.

About the author
Shaun Lawson is an academic editor specialising in politics and international relations. Twitter: @shaunjlawson

Shaun Lawson es un editor académico especializado en política y relaciones internacionales. Twitter: @shaunjlawson. Blog


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