A non-partisan journal of the left.

Proportional Representation in the UK

Mon 31st Dec 2012

After the disaster that was Nick Clegg's attempt at electoral reform and with the current, dire state of the UK economy it appears that reforming the voting system may be off the agenda for at least a generation, longer if the two main parties have their way. Yet this attitude of complacency is a disaster for British democracy, and thus, for the British people.

People in this country are switched off from politics. Low turnouts and general apathy are evidence of this fact and yet there is no real effort to try and stop this decline in political participation by the establishment, leaving an apathetic and mistrustful public disengaged and disconnected from those who claim to represent them. The reasons for this are diverse and debatable. No real alternative to the main three parties who have become increasingly similar in policy and make up is just one of these reasons.

A key, more pressing reason though is that in the UK, the vast majority of people have a vote that realistically makes no difference whatsoever. Unless you happen to live in a swing/marginal constituency, your vote at a general election counts for very little. At most it can be used as a protest vote, nothing more than a futile gesture. In 2005, it was estimated that only 800,000 potential votes out of a potential 45m were in such marginal constituencies, meaning that over 44m people faced the prospect of voting in contests that were more or less already decided.

If you are a Green Party supporter living outside of a few southern Green strongholds, your vote is more or less wasted and meaningless. If you are a socialist who feels that the Labour Party has drifted too far towards the centre or even the right, realistically you have no alternative party to vote for, because the chances of a small party organising enough in your area to be a challenge to the Labour Party is extremely slim.

These small sounding, individual examples are just a small part of the failure of the 'First Past The Post' system of voting. Three close elections in the UK in the past have been won by a party which actually won less votes than the party that lost the election. It is surely undemocratic for a party to be the most popular party with the voters in a country and still be out of power. If the polls stay as they are currently, there is a real chance that UKIP could win 10 per cent or more of the popular vote and still end up with no seats in the House of Commons. Regardless of what you think about their policies, that is surely an undemocratic travesty.

Labour promised a referendum on Proportional representation in 1997 but never delivered. Now the Tories and large chunks of the Labour Party both peddle the same myths about PR. That it is complicated. That it doesn't improve voter turnout and that smaller parties wouldn't win seats anyway, even under PR.

The myths are easily debunked. PR is not complicated. Parties win seats in parliament based on the percentage of the popular vote they win. If they win 35 per cent of the vote, they take roughly 35 per cent of the seats in parliament. What could be simpler? Every vote counts, democracy in action. Voter turnouts in both the UK and USAare among the lowest in the world when compared to other democracies who use different voting systems to ours. And while it is true that many small parties wouldn't win seats currently based on previous vote shares won, that is easily explained by the fact that the First Past The Post system is geared against small parties, and thus makes voting for them a waste of time in near all cases. This would change with the change of system.

The UK is a vibrant country, with a vibrant history and many regional, vibrant political traditions. The voting system we have now is strangling the life out of the politics of this country. It is undemocratic and is a system long since abandoned by many progressive democracies all over the world.

People on the left and right need to unite and form a broad coalition to lobby and protest for a change to our voting system. It is not enough to tut when the country has a low turnout in an election, or to complain down in the pub that all politicians are the same and the main political parties are too similar. Equally, the attitude that electoral reform should wait until other issues such as the economy are sorted out is wrong and counterproductive.

Reforming the voting system is a key step to creating a more progressive society and a more vibrant political environment. AV is a slightly more complicated system and was a poor second choice for a referendum that was agreed as a compromise during the coalition agreement negotiations. Proportional Representation is simpler and easier to explain to the public at large. Without it, nothing will change and minority voices will never be heard. Groups like the Greens, UKIP, Respect, the Liberal Democrats the trade unions, elements within the Labour Party, smaller leftist groups and parties, activists and campaign groups like the Electoral Reform Society need to work together and push this to the top of their agendas. Only then will they have a genuine chance of being able to express their views and ideology properly, within a reformed political framework.

Proportional Representation is the only thing that can realistically breathe life into our crumbling, out dated political system and reignite the public's interest and participation in party politics.

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