electoral system

Is our electoral system out of date?

As yet another election rolls around, we’re being told to register to vote because it’s important to have our say. But is it? In principle, of course, it should be, but it’s now really a question of who we vote for, and where we do it. These are the consequences of an electoral system that is really starting to show its age.

Arguments for electoral reform have always circulated, but they’ve become particularly popular after the last few elections. In 2015, both the Lib Dems and UKIP got far more votes than the SNP, but ended up with fewer MPs. The SNP had 56 (8.6% of the 650 MP total) with just 4.7% of the national vote – the Lib Dems won eight (1.2%) with 7.9%, and UKIP got just one MP despite winning 12.6% of the vote. You may not like any of these parties, but it’s hard to disagree with the unfairness of these results.

If you live in a safe seat and you don’t vote for the dominant party, your vote is essentially wasted.

Similarly, Theresa May was derided as a failure after the 2017 election (and not without reason) after she lost seats against a historically unpopular opposition leader in Jeremy Corbyn. But in terms of Tory votes, she was actually incredibly successful – she earned 100,000 more votes than Tony Blair did in 1997, winning his 418 landslide, and it was simply a matter of where the votes actually were cast.

We’re told at every election that our vote matters, but this statement comes with a lot of caveats. If you live in a safe seat and you don’t vote for the dominant party, your vote is essentially wasted (it’s no good being a Labour voter in Kenilworth, for example). As we saw in 2015, second place wins you nothing – your candidate needs to get the largest proportion of votes cast, and it’s sweet nothing if your guy doesn’t win. A vote for a party in a swing seat, like my home town of Nuneaton, is worth more because it can actually sway the outcome.

There’s also the question of the Speakership – voters in John Bercow’s constituency voiced upset that, as the Speaker is supposed to be an independent figure who doesn’t take part in votes, they had effectively been denied representation in Parliament since his election in 2009. As the major parties typically don’t stand against the Speaker, it denies people a genuine choice.

I’m being denied the vote I want to cast because politicians are, in effect, gaming the system.

The announcement of a pact between the Lib Dems, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru this month also raised the issue of choice. The parties are working together in a number of seats to ensure anti-Brexit MPs have the best chance of being elected, by standing down their MPs in order to avoid splitting the anti-Brexit vote. But, as politicians keep telling us, this is more than a Brexit election – what if I support the Greens, for example, but they aren’t standing in my area because of this pact? I’m being denied the vote I want to cast because politicians are, in effect, gaming the system.

Of course, the larger issue is that these parties have to game the system to have any chance of succeeding. Our electoral system really supports the Conservative and Labour parties, and (to a minor effect) regional parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru, but it is notoriously hard for a smaller party to break through and actually win. Look at all the hype surrounding the Brexit Party, as an example: commentators are agreed on two things – that the party is hugely popular in the country and likely to pick up loads of votes, but also that its probability of actually winning any seats is pretty much zero.

Can we solve these problems? It seems to me that, if we want voting to actually be representative, we should have some form of proportional representation electoral system, so you know that your vote does actually count. Another option is redrawing constituency boundaries (as performed by an impartial figure, as parties always reject the other side’s efforts). But, perhaps most importantly, we need parties to actually engage with electoral reform – I know that its hard because the parties with power will always lose out, but more effective representation can only be a positive for our democracy. The Brexit situation has shown us a Parliament at its most toxic, ineffective and contemptuous of democracy and its constituents. If that’s not an indication of the need for reform, I don’t know what will be.

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