How often have you said, or heard others say, “There’s no point in me voting because my vote doesn’t count”? Well that’s not good enough, because your vote must matter.
Winner takes all
In any democracy fit for the 21st century, everyone’s vote should count equally, and votes cast for each party should be reflected in the make-up of government. But in the United Kingdom, under our present First Past the Post (FPTP) system, candidates win by virtue of having the highest number of votes, even if more people voted against them than for them. ‘The winner takes all’. Nowhere was this more clearly in evidence than in the 2019 general election, where 56% of voters did not vote for the Conservative Party, who nevertheless won an 80-seat majority.
Furthermore, in 2019 Labour had to gain more than 50,000 votes to elect each MP, while the Conservatives needed only 38,000. For the smaller parties it was even worse: the Liberal Democrats needed 336,000 and the Green Party 800,000 for each MP, while the Brexit Party got more than 600,000 votes but did not get a single seat.
Instead of improving electoral fairness, the present government has rushed through a series of measures that will disenfranchise many sections of the community on the pretext that it will protect against voter fraud, despite the evidence that there is no large-scale electoral fraud in the UK.
The 2022 Elections Act has the effect of making the electoral landscape even more unequal. Indeed, the government’s own commissioned research found that mandatory voter identification would suppress votes from more marginalised sections of the community, as those with severely limiting disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, and those who had never voted before are all less likely to hold any form of photo ID. It is estimated that about 3.5 million people will be affected.
Younger voters could also be affected as new voter ID requirements won’t accept railcards, and yet will accept pensioners’ travel cards. So much for levelling up!
The act also constrains the Electoral Commission, the formerly independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK, by giving ministers “new and unchecked powers over the elections regulator, leaving it open to undue influence and undermining free and fair elections in the UK”.
Tactical voting and boundary changes
Voter ID is only one aspect of the suppression of voting. FPTP often means that people have to vote tactically, in order to stop the party they don’t want to win, rather than for the party and policies they support. This represents a dysfunctional democracy, as the choice of vote is constrained by the political makeup of their own constituency.
The national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each use proportional representation (PR). Until the Elections Act 2022 came into effect, mayoral elections in the UK also used PR. The government has now ensured FPTP voting everywhere except in the national assemblies.
Boundary changes will also impact the national voting picture. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 will come into effect at the next general election, provided it is after July 2023. This act means some constituency boundaries will change, putting their current MPs in either a stronger or weaker position as different groups of voters are shifted from one constituency to another. Local parties advocating tactical voting, may find this difficult with sudden influx of a new and different voters. Boundary changes may well exacerbate the issues around FPTP. It has been estimated for example that the changes could gain the Tories ten seats.
Feasibility, transparency and accountability
At the recent Oxford ‘Get Moving for PR’ event, Professor Helen Margetts, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford talked about three important reasons why we should be considering PR: feasibility, transparency and accountability.
On feasibility, research by Professor Margetts and Professor Patrick Dunleavy, following the general elections of 1992 and 1997 showed that voters were well able to deal with PR in mock ballots which “translated into predictable and more proportional results”. Their research informed the implementation of PR for the London assembly. Subsequent use of PR in national assemblies and mayoral elections has shown clearly that voters are capable of making complex decisions about their preferences.
On transparency, their research showed that using PR would “give an accurate picture of the underlying patterns in the political system”: people are voting without having to calculate who to vote for to get the best, or least bad result for them – i.e. it would avoid the need to vote tactically. In the 2019 election, it is estimated 20% voted tactically. Even so, or perhaps as a consequence, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party received 16% (5.2m) of votes between them, yet they shared just 2% of seats.
On accountability, FPTP enables a party having a minority of votes nationally but a majority of seats to have undue influence on and a lack of accountability to parliament. Having a substantial majority in parliament enables the government to increase discretionary powers in many areas, including electoral administration, and to skirt round other issues unless pressed by their fellow backbench MPs, or as recently, the House of Lords.
Every day stories of sleaze hit the headlines. Politicians falling short of expected moral and ethical behaviour and often, seemingly unaccountable, staying in post. The need for electoral reform has never been more urgent. Accountability to parliament, to the people who vote for them and professionalism are fundamental to restoring trust in government.
The need for PR is urgent
Until our electoral system is changed, parliament will continue not to reflect the population of this country in all its wonderful diversity. It will continue to exist in a 19th-century political microcosm which holds back the UK’s development and remains out of touch with what people want and need. It will continue to fail to make the best decisions for the country because of one-sided political decision-making.
We face many challenges globally and at home which need our politicians to be able to make the best decisions and to respond quickly to changing circumstances. This requires parliament to have a diverse and inclusive composition reflecting the people they represent and for MPs together work together to make considered and better legislation.
The Make Votes Matter movement will continue to remonstrate against electoral unfairness working with others across the political and activist spectrum to bring about the free and fair electoral system that this country deserves. Because your vote must matter!
Electoral Reform Society (2022) ‘How long have we used first past the post?’
Larsen, E. (2017), “New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work“, Forbes.
Ed: This article was co-authored by another of our writers, Dr Sue Ledwith.
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