Only by citizens “taking back control” can public confidence be restored in politics
- Part of Bright Green’s new political engagement series
British politics in 2016 is in a peculiar state. Our society is recovering from the recent EU referendum in which the British people took the historic decision to leave. Turnout for this referendum was a reasonable 72.2% and followed Scotland’s independence referendum which saw a lofty turnout of 84.6%. Healthy figures such as these suggest that political engagement in the United Kingdom is doing well, but don’t be deceived.
In general elections Britain’s turnout lags behind its Western European neighbours and our politicians refuse to change the outdated first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system used for elections to the House of Commons. Green and UKIP supporters alike are dismayed that despite the impressive support of both parties in the 2015 general election together they received just one MP each. The issue of ‘wasted votes’ is a huge frustration across the country and is switching people off and public confidence in politicians is low.
We need progressive solutions to these issues and a complete transformation of British democracy, a transformation in which the British people would become the beating heart of our country’s political system. In essence, the Brexit era must be seized by progressives as an opportunity, rather than be passively accepted as a right-wing tragedy.
‘First Past The Post’: Not fit for the 21st century
FPTP is the electoral system of a number of countries typically defined as ‘liberal democracies’. These include the UK, United States and Canada. Yet it is also used by countries with dubious civil rights and democratic records such as Azerbaijan, Yemen and Uganda. Strikingly, the UK is the only country in Europe to use this system, with most countries on the continent favouring proportional party list systems which better reflect the wishes of voters.
The main arguments in favour of FPTP are that it is easy to understand, results can be counted quickly and that it produces ‘strong government’. However, supporters of this system fail to acknowledge the fact that the results produced by this system do not reflect how the electorate voted. For example, in the 2015 general election the Conservatives won 36.9% of the popular vote but were rewarded with a staggering 50.9% of the seats in the House of Commons. In contrast, UKIP secured 12.6% of the vote but achieved just 0.15% of the seats. Like them or not, that over 3.8 million votes translated into just one MP is dismally unfair.
In light of this, it is not surprising that the British public is so dismayed with politics. The reality – which the majority of the Westminster clique refuse to accept – is that in 2016 the British public is no longer divided simply between supporters of the Conservatives and Labour. Other parties such as the Greens, UKIP, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have made serious inroads and are all challenging Britain’s traditional two-party system. However, the fact is that we have an electoral system which makes it extremely difficult for peoples’ views to be represented in Parliament if they support ‘smaller’ parties because the percentage of votes that these parties win is not reflected by the number of seats that the party receives. This is one of the main contributing factors to the feeling held by many: that their vote simply does not have an impact and consequently there is no point in voting at all.
The unfairness of the FPTP system must be one of the main reasons for falling turnout in British general elections. This is especially so given that despite the recent increase in membership for the likes of the Green Party in 2015 and for the Liberal Democrats in 2016, since the early 2000s turnout in general elections has slumped to the mid-sixties from the high-seventies during the lengthy, post-war era of Conservative vs Labour head-to-heads.
Proportional representation: Higher turnout and greater representation
The turnout in last year’s general election was 66.1%. This figure is low in comparison to recent elections in European countries using proportional party list systems such as Belgium, which in 2014 had a turnout of 89.4%; The Netherlands, which in 2012 recorded a turnout of 74.6%; and Sweden, which in 2014 recorded a turnout of 85.8%. With the UK recording on average some of the lowest turnouts in Europe in recent times, the indication is that FPTP is deterring people from voting and thus is having a negative impact on political participation. This trend is not unique to the UK either: Canada – which also uses FPTP – saw its turnout in general elections fall below the seventy-percent mark (and well below the European examples mentioned above) since as far back as 1993.
As well as higher levels of turnout, another positive impact of proportional electoral systems – as mentioned above – or hybrid voting systems – such as the Additional Member System (AMS) used in Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections – is that they better reflect the wishes of the people. This means that the percentage of votes a party receives is reflected closely by the percentage of seats won. Good examples of the correlation between votes won and seats won can be seen in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election results.
For example, the SNP received 46.5% of the constituency vote, 41.7% of the regional vote and won 48.8% of the seats. In the same election, the Scottish Conservatives received 22% of the constituency vote, 22.9% of the regional vote and won 24% of the seats. Evidently, in this system there is a greater correlation between the percentage of votes received and the percentage of seats won in the AMS system which simply does not exist in FPTP. AMS in Scotland has helped the SNP to break Labour’s historical domination of Scottish politics. Furthermore, in 2016 the Scottish Greens won six seats in the Scottish Parliament, while in Wales UKIP secured seven seats in an election which saw Plaid Cymru finish second.
Interestingly, basic calculations suggest that if Westminster elections used a proportional electoral system UKIP would have secured roughly 82 MPs in the last election and the Greens around 25. This would be transformative for British politics, allowing new voices and new ideas to enter our national political dialogue. It would also be encouraging for potential UKIP and Green voters who at present do not vote for either because they feel that under FPTP a vote for either of these is a wasted vote.
In essence, there is a credible argument that the implementation of a more proportional system could see political engagement (in this case, turnout in elections) in the UK increase to the levels seen in countries which already use proportional systems. This is because there would be a direct correlation between the percentage of votes received and the percentage of seats won, which would go some way towards tackling the current feeling in Britain that many peoples’ votes do not count. Support for parties such as the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens would likely increase because a vote for one of these parties would be worth something under a hybrid or proportional system.
In the troubling times we live in it is essential that we use Brexit as a means of achieving positive change in Britain. Part of this positive change must be electoral reform. Electoral reform has the potential to please disillusioned voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. But while it is essential that we replace the FPTP system used in elections to the House of Commons, with public confidence in elected politicians severely low we must dare to go further than simply reforming the electoral system.
Creating a ‘citizens’ democracy’
Most people were aware of Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control” slogan during the EU referendum campaign. Controversial and vague this slogan may have been Brexit presents the perfect opportunity for the British people to do just that: to take back control from Westminster politicians. In addition to electoral reform, another solution to addressing the discontent with London-centric politics would be to put citizen participation directly into the heart of the British political system. This could be achieved by introducing a system of sortition or allotment, in which citizens would be selected at random to serve in Parliament.
This concept is not new or radical, it is ancient. It draws inspiration from ancient Athenian democracy. Of course, in many ways ancient Athens was by no means a model society and the system itself would need to be updated. For example, there may be a need for checks and balances to ensure the proportion of women, men, and minorities drawn to serve reflected the composition of the country as a whole. However, this concept of greater citizen participation in the legislature could be an appealing idea in terms of reforming the antiquated and undemocratic House of Lords. And this concept of sortition is not new in Britain – a similar system already exists in the appointment of juries as part of common law.
This can be a solution to addressing our democratic deficit because some in our society feel that representative democracy has failed to reflect their views. It is the unfortunate truth that some sections of British society have simply been left behind by the political elite. In particular, working-class communities often feel disengaged or ignored by national politics, particularly those in the former industrial areas such as the English north, midlands and south Wales region.
Many feel that no party represents them. And this is not surprising given Labour’s acceptance of neoliberal economics which has destroyed many communities; the move to the centre by both Labour and the Tories, creating the sentiment that “they’re all the same”; as well as the British electoral system which makes it impossible to achieve change through the ballot box.
Disengagement in politics also stems from the increased use of meaningless soundbites by politicians and the recent trend that to be a successful politician one must only be good at speaking, performing and causing controversy. Instead of voting on legislation based on what the party or its whips tells them to, the citizens in this new chamber would instead vote based on their conscience and what they believe to be in the interests of the country at large. The opportunity to represent yourself and your community for a number of years in Parliament without the need for party loyalty is a notion which should appeal to many across the political spectrum.
The adoption of a more proportional system for elections to the House of Commons and the reform of the House of Lords into a ‘citizens’ chamber’ would give the country the best of both forms of democracy. Electoral reform would strengthen peoples’ belief in the representative system by making votes count. It would also mean that the archaic and unelected House of Lords would be no more. Britain would be engaging in the most radical democratic experiment in recent times. In this new system politicians would still draft the laws, but it would be a group of citizens like you and me who would approve, reject or amend these laws. The interests of the citizens would be at the heart of this democracy.
Whether it be via PR or direct involvement, only by citizens “taking back control” can public confidence be restored in politics.
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