Restoring Democracy in Britain

In previous posts, I have written about climate change and leadership. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, therefore, especially at this tumultuous time, that the spotlight is next turned on the political situation in our country. The consensus is that, if it’s not yet the case, our political system is close to collapse. It is difficult to imagine that public confidence in our leaders can hold, even at this low level, unless the issue of leaving the European Union is resolved soon and well. However, the fall-out from the political impasse resulting from the close result of the referendum in 2016 is likely to last long after the deal is done. It is timely to ask, what can be done to heal the rift in our society and rebuild our confidence in the democratic process?

I believe the solution lies in the reform of the electoral system, long recognised by many to be unfit for purpose. Make no mistake, though, this is a huge task, as recognised by the fact that the Electoral Reform Society has been campaigning since 1884 maintaining then that the system “was failing to overcome the challenges presented by the approaching twentieth century.” How much more is the system failing us today?

In order to understand how much harm is done by our failure to change the electoral process to ensure that the concept of one-person-one-vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, it is instructive to reflect on key statistics from the General Election of 2017. The reason for choosing that particular election cycle is that it threw up the parliament now charged with taking us out of the EU.

First to the background. As things stand, our electoral process is designed to produce a winning party that earns the ‘right ‘ to form the government of the day. All other parties are cast aside along with the voters who supported them, arguably with the exception of the official opposition. The effectiveness of this arrangement depends directly on the size of the majority gained by the winners in this archaic first-past-the-post system. The outcome of this combative process, creating its winners and losers is division. The task of those who seek to lead our democracy should surely be to unite for the benefit of all citizens. It is the fact that this is not the case that divides British society at this pivotal point in our history.

Voting Anomalies

In the 2017 General Election, just two examples from the results serve to illustrate the perverse consequences of the existing voting system. By comparing the outcome of the ballot for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Greens, a serious unintended but unavoidable flaw in our first-past-the-post system is laid bare.

The total votes cast for the DUP in Northern Ireland were 292,316 resulting in them gaining 10 seats in parliament. The total votes cast for the Greens was 525,665 and they gained just the one seat. In terms of individual voters and their eventual impact on the election, whereas only 29,231 votes were required to return a single MP for the DUP to parliament, it took a massive 525,665 votes to bring about the same result for the Green Party.

The Consequences for the Democratic Process

Perceptions matter hugely. If people feel their vote has no impact on the outcome of the ballot, voter apathy is likely to follow. As an example, going back to my own upbringing in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, a Labour Party stronghold, it was said that if a donkey was put up for the party, it would win. The same general impression persists in our current democracy. Is this not what we are acknowledging when we recognise that the outcome of the ballot in swing or safe seats will determine the composition of the parliament we arrive at? What is to be done about this?

If we wish to create the perception that ours is a just and equitable society, especially going forward following the disastrous handling of Brexit by our elected representatives, we have to ensure that people are motivated to actively participate in the democratic process. Votes matter BUT they must ALL count. We have to change our voting system to better reflect the society we live in rather than perpetuate a system that is no longer fit for the 21st century.

There are many effective examples of countries successfully operating some form of proportional representation (p-r). The oft cited reason for rejecting such a system in Britain is that people want to vote for the person they wish to represent them in parliament and they are led to believe that p-r will end this arrangement. There are ways of arranging p-r to ensure that the link between local people and their representative is not destroyed. But more important than that is the counterbalancing argument, hardly ever expressed, that under the present system most voters do not end up with their preferred candidate representing them in parliament anyway. Personally, I cannot think of a single election when the candidate I personally wanted to serve as my local MP was ever successful, even at times when the party I expressed a preference for was ‘the winner’!

Change is needed and it is needed NOW. If our MPs were well versed in consensus politics, we would not be facing the awful mess we are currently in. With a narrow, but decisive vote for exiting the EU, we needed a parliament capable of working across parties to limit the potential for division in the country. Collaborative politics may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but if long-term we want to heal the rifts in society, we need to ensure that the system changes.


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