Labour defenders of Britain’s corrupt voting system claim that electoral reform is irrelevant to ordinary people’s lives. It’s a middle class preoccupation, they say. What matters are policies on jobs, housing, education and health. Even those who concede that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system is unfair often say that electoral reform is not a priority, given the recession and rising unemployment.
How wrong they are. Bad policies flow directly from the way the FPTP voting system allows parties with minority support to form majority governments and to then impose unpopular right-wing policies, like Thatcher’s poll tax and Labour’s planned cuts in housing benefit.
Most of the British public are left-of-centre on most issues. But majority progressive opinions are often not represented in parliament by a majority of MPs. Every government since 1950 has taken power based on less than 50% of the popular vote. None has won majority public support. Voters for progressive small parties, like the Greens, have no MPs at all.
In the 2005 election, Labour won 35% of the vote but bagged 55% of the seats. Of eligible voters, only 22% voted Labour. Yet Labour won a 66 seat majority. This is not democracy. It echoes the gerrymandering and ballot-rigging of two centuries ago, which galvanised the Chartists to campaign for a democratic, representative parliament.
The electoral process is ‘rigged.’ In 2005, it took an average 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. Not since the rotten boroughs of the eighteenth century have elections been so corrupt.
This democratic deficit is a direct result of FPTP, which allows the election of MPs and governments with minority support. FPTP enabled Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win landslide majorities based on popular votes of only 35% to 44%.
If there was a fairer, proportional voting system, we would have never had the Thatcher and John Major governments and, as a result, never had “New” Labour and the ditching of socialism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Recent political history would have been different – and better.
With proportional representation (PR), neither Thatcher and Major nor Blair and Brown would have been able to form stand-alone governments. Supported by only a minority of voters, they would have had to form coalitions, which would have curbed policy excesses, such as the Iraq war.
If there had been PR in the 1980s, either Thatcher would have had to go into coalition with the Lib Dems and other minor parties (which would have scuppered many of her reactionary policies) or Labour might have been able to form a coalition with the Lib Dems and others, which would have meant no Conservative government in the 1980s – sparing Britain the social destruction of Thatcherism.
Some defenders of FPTP complain that if we switch to PR Labour might never again win a majority of seats and form a government in its own right. But if Labour can’t persuade a majority of voters, it doesn’t deserve to form a government (ditto the Tories). Democracy is supposed to be about the will of the majority. It cannot be reconciled with a voting system that persistently allows parties with minority support to form governments with huge majorities.
If the last three elections had been conducted under PR, Labour would not have won an overall majority of seats. But there would be Green MPs and more Lib Dem MPs. On many issues, these two parties are to the left of the Labour government. They would have had a radicalising influence. Blair and Brown would have been forced to depend on Lib Dem and Green support; probably resulting in no post office closures, Trident renewal, ID cards, expanded nuclear power, privatisation of public services and no British troops in Iraq.
With PR, the Tories might never rule alone again; thereby preventing a repeat of Thatcherite exremism. We’d see the election of MPs representing the Greens and radical left parties, as happened under Scotland’s PR system. This would shift the political centre leftwards. Labour would be radicalised because it would have to rule in coalition with radical left, Green and Lib Dem MPs (who, despite their flaws, are more left-leaning than Gordon Brown on many issues). Labour could end up more or less permanently in power as part of a radicalising coalition. This is infinitely preferrable to having the Tories in government.
A democracy requires a parliament that reflects the people’s will; where the proportion of seats won corresponds to the proportion of votes cast. This means finishing the parliamentary reform process begun by the Chartists. We need a new Chartist movement to secure PR and a representative parliament.
The Scottish Parliament election system is a practical example of a fairer electoral process. Electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party list. This combines the accountability of single member constituencies with additional ‘top-up’ MPs based on the total list vote received by each party; thereby ensuring proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it wins. This system works in Scotland, why can’t we have it at Westminster?
The ‘Vote for a Change’ campaign is calling for a referendum on voting reform the same day as the next general election. Polls show that a majority of people want a fairer electoral system. It would benefit Labour and the left. Gordon Brown should let the people decide.
This article was first published in Tribune magazine on 2nd October 2009.
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This post was written by Peter Tatchell