On 5th May 2011 the UK held a national referendum and the people were asked the following question.
At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?
The result was a resounding NO.
The reasons for that result were many and varied but two things have changed since then:
1. 2015, a time when the election results were seen to be outrageously unfair, has been and gone
2. There are far better arguments for voting reform than those relied upon in the 2011 AV referendum campaign (and still principally relied upon by many campaigners today).
The 2015 general election highlighted the severe limitations of FPTP. The SNP received 1,454,436 votes and achieved 56 seats, whilst UKIP received 3,881,099 votes and 1 seat. This stark disparity drew people’s attention to the unfairness of the UK voting system. Most had recognised that FPTP was an ‘imperfect’ reflection of the desires of the populace. However, the flaws in the system were, arguably, mitigated given that it was believed to be more likely to provide majority government enabling the governing party to discharge its manifesto promises without hindrance; in other words, strong government, which appeals to the voting public. We now know this isn’t true.
Apart from the fact that the argument as presented is largely false (and I have detailed why this is so in earlier articles), the balance of perception was changed by this stark and scary result. Whether or not one was a UKIP supporter, everyone thought this to be grossly unfair and it was, quite simply, a game changer.
However, with the passage of time, the outrage fades. The 2017 general election, as with all elections held under FPTP, still had its unfairness (The DUP with 8 seats, 292,316 votes, and UKIP 594,068 votes, 0 seats, Green Party 525,665 votes and 1 seat), but it didn’t register with most people as dramatically as did the 2015 result. The election before last, for most people, does not have the immediacy of the last one. Whether the Prime Minister was aware of this, or factored it into her calculations when she called the 2017 general election, is unknown but one effect of that was to dim people’s sense of unfairness in the electoral system and set-back any political pressure for voting reform that based its entire argument around this single concept.
The arguments around fairness of representation are still strong, but they are not enough, by themselves, to change the voting behaviour of the people. Even then, the usual arguments tend to focus on how MPs are elected to the House of Commons yet fail to address the imbalance between a member’s electoral support and the voting power they exercise, when in the house.
Angus Macneil, the MP for Na h-Eileanan An Iar, was elected to the Westminster parliament in 2017 with 8063 votes. He is currently the chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Stephen Timms is the MP for East Ham with 47,124 votes. There are many candidates who received more votes than Mr Macneil, but they, and their supporters are severely short changed by this arrangement.
Whilst these representatives have widely differing electoral support, they exercise the same voting power in Parliament. That means that the voters of Na h-Eileanan An Iar have 5.9 times the influence of an East Ham voter. In other words, they get 6 votes to a Londoner’s 1. Our parliament has been subject to an evolutionary process since 1215 and The UK parliament was born in 1707. It is understandable that, at that time, they needed a system which was transparent and unequivocal, so voting was determined by entering either a yes lobby or a no lobby and members would be counted as they entered. This system doesn’t allow for counting half a person, so each member counted as one because there was no other way to do it.
We are no longer in the 18th century and do not have to do things the way they did. The existing system, is time consuming, archaic, requires members to be present and spawns an absent buddy system to cater for members who are not able to attend the vote, often because of government business. More importantly, though, is the unmerited influence it hands to members with sparse support and the reduction of rightful influence from members with much greater support.
The artificial equalisation of an MP’s voting power is a distortion of their underlying support, yet most ‘PR’ systems fail to address this inequality.
Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are opposed to changing a system that suits them so well. Tony Blair rather liked his 187-seat majority in 1997 so promptly ditched the manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on PR. Gordon Brown’s promise to do the same thing also floundered for the same reason, that of self-interest. One can’t quite divorce the benefit to smaller political parties of voting reform, and it is often presented as the single motivation for smaller parties wanting this change. Nobody, however, gets elected without the weight of votes so, such an argument is misdirected as it is the people who benefit through the election of representatives that reflect their points of view.
Many people don’t bother to vote, because they do not see their vote as having enough value for them to bother to post a letter or pop down to a local polling station. Only those who perceive their vote as having enough value will vote, meaning that huge numbers of people are left out of the process. The apathy surrounding elections other than a general election is even greater, and results in appalling turnouts at Parish, Borough, Town and County Councils, Unitary Authority, European, and PCC elections, because the value of these votes is perceived as being even less than the parliamentary one. The Brexit (72.2%) and Scottish Independence (84.6%) referendums, on the other hand had higher turnouts. Its not about how easy it is to vote, but what value people attribute to it. Doing things that increase the value of an individual vote will increase participation.
It is a powerful argument, still, that greater participation, inclusivity and direct representation will result in better government as well as a sense of involvement for many more people. It is not, however, the only argument, and probably not the best argument, but it still needs to be made.