Hardly a day goes by without some journo lamenting the decline of our democracy. That’s nothing new in itself; what’s new is that the evidence is everywhere.
Designed for politicians, not for voters
A poll for independent think tank New Local in May 2022 revealed that around a half to two-thirds of people surveyed lacked confidence in Westminster politicians to tackle national issues. 79% agreed or strongly agreed that Westminster and Whitehall were making decisions on behalf of people and places they knew little about, and another 79% agreed or strongly agreed that “The best decisions are made when the people who will be affected are closely involved in the process.” But that’s exactly what our representative democracy doesn’t do; it keeps citizens remote from the decision-making process.
Hélène Landemore is Professor of Political Science at Yale University. In her seminal book Open Democracy, she explains that this was no accident:
“These political rights, however, were initially conceptualised as facilitating consent to power rather than exercise of power. Voting rights were meant primarily as rights to choose representatives, not to directly decide on issues or put questions on the political agenda.”
A recent article by Michael Bursill in Chartist recounts how this distancing of the people from the apparatus of power became enshrined in the electoral system we have today. The Reform Act of 1884 included a Whig proposal to enfranchise working people in rural districts. Alarmed at the prospect of the established Tory/Whig duopoly being undermined by a horde of new workers’ parties, Lord Salisbury, then leader of the Conservative opposition, used his influence in the House of Lords to initiate the 1885 Redistribution Act. This was a gerrymandering exercise on a massive scale, reorganising electoral district boundaries not just to regularise their respective sizes, but, as Bursill describes it, “to create majority-minority districts for the benefit of the two established political parties.”
Any claim that this was progress was a fiction: it was a system designed to represent the interests of the politicians rather than the people. Salisbury’s changes entrenched the system of perpetual duopoly, and inflicted on us the blight of safe seats, wasted votes and gross disproportionality that persists to this day.
Our current representative system is a warren of inconsistency and paradox. As voters, we are told we can achieve three things in a single election:
- identify a political party whose manifesto seems sympathetic to our beliefs and values, even if we don’t agree with all of it,
- select a representative (often previously unknown to us) from that party and trust them to take our issues and concerns on board and get parliament to deal with them,
- trust that our chosen party will be able to form a competent and stable government.
All three can be achieved with a single vote, for a single person, we are told; and for better or worse, we have to live with the consequences for the next five years.
The fiction is compounded even further by the method used to pursue it – the deeply flawed first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. Of three candidates, Jim Smith gets 40% of the votes, against Ann Wilson on 35% and Fred Carter on 25% – i.e. the latter two have 60% between them – but Jim Smith still wins. Thus does the duopoly of defective government replicate itself, see-sawing from time-to-time between Tory and Labour in a grotesque parody of proper democracy.
But there are yet more, deeply systemic, deficiencies of representation inherent in our current system, for Jim, for the legislature and for the government. Jim’s problem is simple but unresolvable. He might be lucky enough that his party delivers on their manifesto sufficiently to satisfy the 40% who voted for him, but what about the 60% who voted for someone else entirely? How can he deliver satisfactorily for them as well?
Even as Jim turns a blind eye to this conundrum, a larger one looms for the legislature. Since 1935, 90% of UK single-party governments may have been formed on a majority of seats, but those seats were won, in every case, on a minority of the national vote. In 2019, the Conservatives gained 56% of parliamentary seats on only 43.6% of the national vote. So, more people voted against the Conservatives than voted for, yet they still won. This is an in-built flaw of the archaic FPTP system which is little used in Europe outside the UK and Belarus.
Perhaps the peak of absurdity is achieved at the top level of government. Parliament – one of whose roles is to scrutinise the executive’s actions and hold it to account – is dominated by the very same political party which makes up the executive. Not just a risible but a quite unacceptable case of marking your own homework.
Democracy theorists such as Hélène Landemore emphasize that for any system to be regarded as democratic, representatives must have been accorded that role legitimately. She says:
“…democratically legitimate representatives are representatives who have at a minimum been authorised by at least a majority of the people they claim to represent.”
Under FPTP, with a single vote for a single person on a single day, with both Jim and his party elected by a minority of the electorate, and with a suspect system of scrutiny at government level, our ‘representative’ democracy is neither very representative nor very democratic. We need a system of selecting representatives which produces better results than FPTP, i.e. which provides and builds upon democratic legitimacy. By default, this means some variant of proportional representation (PR). But immediately, the question arises: what do we mean by ‘better’?
PR campaigning organisation Make Votes Matter (MVM) has pioneered a ‘Good Systems Agreement’ supported by a wide range of signatories including political parties, individual MPs and other organisations and lay persons, which posits ten key principles of PR:
- Equal votes
- Local links
- Voter choice
- Balance of stability and flexibility
- Sustainability and adaptability
- Voting simplicity
Definitions of these principles can be found on the MVM website, but on examination, it is apparent that five of them relate to attendant factors such as the integrity of the representative and the size and makeup of the electoral district. The remaining five do derive directly from the PR system itself:
- local links
- voter choice
- voting simplicity
In an excellent article, Proportional representation: a brief guide, West England Bylines writer Philip Cole evaluates the two main types of PR system – list and Single Transferable Vote (STV). Both have strengths and weaknesses across the five principles above, but on the key principle of proportionality – where seats won closely match votes cast – Cole says that both systems deliver well. He adds that list systems essentially result in proportional representation of parties, while STV results in proportional representation of policies. Seeing that only about 1.3% of the UK’s population are members of political parties, democratic legitimacy surely favours STV for producing results encompassing the locality-related and demographically nuanced policies of candidates, rather than the catch-all blandishments of party manifestos.
The other, really key, principle – diversity – requires that the composition of the resulting legislature (parliament) should reflect the make-up of the population as a whole. Where FPTP fails to do this by wasting so many votes, a PR system would provide much better results – but only if electoral districts were multi-member, says Cole. Six is commonly quoted as resulting in the best proportionality. This alone increases the scope for diversity by the same factor. Such a change not only consigns the stifling duopoly of FPTP to the dustbin of history, but marks the dawn of a truly pluralistic politics, capable of reflecting the fact that voters today tend not to be on a spectrum from ‘left’ to ‘right’, but can take an eclectic mix of positions in a multidimensional political space.
STV makes most sense
Cole leaves little doubt that, in his view, the Single Transferable Vote – STV – is the best option. He describes the voting process thus:
“The ballot paper presents you with a number of candidates, possibly arranged by party, alphabetically or in random order (it’s irrelevant). You number them in your order of preference – which is why STV is sometimes described as ‘Preferential Voting’. You can stop after one or carry on till you have expressed a preference for every single candidate. You can vote on strict party lines if you wish, or you can express preferences for candidates from different parties who support specific policies.”
Following an election, it is the vote counting process which turns preferences into results. Candidates achieving an agreed number of first preference votes (the quota) are deemed elected. Assuming there are more candidates than seats to fill, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated and for each voter for whom they were the first preference, those votes are transferred to the voter’s second preference. In addition, an elected candidate’s surplus votes, over and above the quota, are transferred to each voter’s second preference. This process is repeated until all seats have been filled.
The increased scope for providing more choice, and for matching a voter’s views to a representative likely to honour them, is immediately apparent. But beyond that, STV also affords for better links to be maintained between representative and electoral district (the ‘local link’), and is hardly more complicated than FPTP. Yet, there is scope for further improvement. In Part Two of this article, we will describe a novel variant of STV which is turbo-charged to carry the weight of the voting public right into the centre of our political system.
Editor’s note: See also Philip Cole’s recent defence of STV.
NB The views expressed are the author’s own