Democracy has sadly become a cheap word in our divided society, bandied about to justify all manner of power grabs and constitutional change whilst scrutiny is increasingly in short supply. This sorry state of affairs has come about largely due to our outdated first past the post (FPTP) electoral system, where the winner takes all and there’s no role even for a close second. This leaves millions of people feeling unrepresented and perpetuates a two-party system that results in ugly oppositional politics rather than consensus-driven coalitions.
Make every vote count
History shows us that the Conservatives thrive under FPTP. The current UK government has a huge working majority of 70+, winning 80 seats at the last election. This is despite polling less than 50 percent of the vote; 43.6 percent to be precise. This means that a huge number of ballots cast are effectively wasted votes.
Also, of the 47,568,611 people registered to vote in the December 2019 general election, 22.7 percent did not even bother to vote. That’s nearly 11 million people, which is the approximate population of Paris. It’s a shocking statistic when visualised in this way. We owe it to the brave campaigners who fought to extend the franchise, often paying with their lives or liberty, to reinvigorate our democracy by making every vote count.
The UK and Belarus are the only countries in Europe that continue to use FPTP for the majority of their electoral processes. The Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko makes for an uncomfortable bedfellow in democracy league tables and this at least should persuade us that there’s something seriously wrong with our voting system.
FPTP encourages extreme politics
Across the globe where FPTP is used it appears to favour majority governments led by right-wing parties. The British Labour Party was formed in 1900, yet has only been in government for 30 years during all that time. Whilst FPTP might deliver large majorities, this generally doesn’t correlate with share of the vote and that means a significant percentage of the voting public often feel unrepresented. They become apathetic and less inclined to vote, particularly in so-called ‘safe seats’ or they resort to ‘tactical voting’ rather than voting for their preferred candidate/party.
A vibrant democracy needs an engaged citizenry. Polling day should matter to everyone not just those in marginals.
“[In certain circumstances] FPTP can … abet extreme politics, since should a radical faction gain control of one of the major political parties, FPTP works to preserve that party’s position”. (page 21)
Electoral reform campaigners have argued that the use of FPTP in South Africa was a contributory factor in the country’s adoption of the apartheid system after the 1948 general election. Meanwhile, according to researchers Leblang and Chan, a country’s electoral system is a key predictor of a country’s likely involvement in war. They suggest that when the people are fairly represented in parliament there is greater access to political power to prevent it. In a proportional democracy, war – and other major decisions – generally requires the consent of the majority.
Some British human rights campaigners, including Peter Tatchell, have argued that Britain entered the Iraq War primarily because of the political effects of FPTP and that proportional representation would have prevented Britain’s involvement in the war.
Proportional representation and equality
I’m a campaigner for PR, not just because I am a peace campaigner who was elected by the party list system through PR in the 2014 European elections, and not just because I am a member of a left-of-centre party that aspires to be in power, but also because I am a woman.
In 2022, power continues to rest predominantly in the hands of men, with just 35 percent of the UK’s MPs being women. That’s also true at local government level, where most mayors and council leaders are also men. This gender imbalance is not only unfair and out of date in the 21st century, but it also hinders the development of effective public policy – when women and minorities have a seat at the table everyone benefits from more inclusive programmes and better law-making.
We can look to New Zealand to see the benefits of proportional representation in respect of equality. In addition to being the first country in the world where the franchise was made universal, with equal votes for both women and men, Aotearoa (New Zealand) voted to ditch FPTP in the early 1990s. The use of PR in subsequent general elections tells a story not only of women’s participation and representation, but also of the impact they have been able to make.
Nowhere has that impact been seen more positively than in the office of prime minister. For 61 percent of the time that New Zealand has used PR, a woman has served as prime minister; Jenny Shipley (National), Helen Clark (Labour), and incumbent PM Jacinda Ardern (Labour) have governed for 17 years between them. All three have worked with a variety of different parties and independent MPs in a variety of parliamentary arrangements to deliver good government.
Time to bring UK democracy into the 21st century
During our inglorious imperial past, we exported various aspects of British life to the rest of the world and this has resulted in a continuation of archaic practices in many former British colonies, including the use of the death penalty as well as FPTP. Improving our democracy and modernising our state would send a signal to other countries that we are serious about strengthening our democracy and making it fit for purpose in the 21st century.
We could be world-leading in this at least, even if we have temporarily left the international stage by turning our back on Europe. We showed leadership by ending the death penalty in 1965. It’s time to get rid of that other outdated practice – FPTP – and simultaneously restore the public’s trust and engagement in politic
Note from the editor – As the fight of the suffragettes inspired our author to write this article, North West activists fighting for PR have taken their inspiration from the suffragettes’ activities for their own event “Get moving for PR” . This event will conclude on 11 June in Manchester and Preston where activists will finish their 6-day walk from Grasmere to Preston, recreating the route of the Suffragette’s Great Pilgrimage.”
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