Sunday, 25 April 2010

A very undemocratic democracy

Last week I outlined briefly the political system in this country. I alluded to some weaknesses but said I’d talk about them this week, so that’s what I am going to do.

As I said, we each vote in our constituency for a Member of Parliament who then represents the whole of the constituency. This MP is decided simply by who gets the most votes; he (or she) doesn’t need a majority, just the largest minority. Indeed in most of the country MPs do not have the vote of the majority of their constituency. This means that over half of the people who voted in most constituencies voted for someone other than the person who is sent to Parliament on behalf of them. Even when an MP gets a majority, he only represents 51% (or whatever his majority is) of the constituency. The other 49% (or however many) are not actually represented in Parliament. Indeed if you add it up over the country, on average over 50% of the voters are not actually represented by anyone in Parliament. Unless you vote for the same person as enough other people in your constituency, your view will not be represented in Parliament at all. It’s worth stopping for a moment and letting that fact detonate in your brain.

The views of over half of the people who vote are not represented in Parliament.

I talked last week about the fact that some classes of society tend to vote for a certain party and that some individuals will almost always vote for a certain party no matter what happens. This means that each of the parties can essentially guarantee a particular proportion of the vote. This is the case in most countries, but it has horrible consequences given our political system. The way the constituencies are distributed (so that each one has roughly equal number of voters), most constituencies lie in an area where a large chunk of voters know for whom they will vote. These usually form a large minority, large enough for the MP representing that party to be fairly certain of winning the election in that constituency each time around. No matter how most people vote in the constituency there is literally no way in which an MP from a different party will win. If you live in one of these ‘safe’ seats, there is literally no point in voting because the result of a foregone conclusion.

Approximately 400 of the 650 constituencies are ‘safe’. Labour has the most of these, with the Tories close behind and the Lib Dems quite far behind. This means that Labour and to a slightly lesser extent Conservatives have a massive head start over everyone else in each election. They can assume ownership of the majority of the constituencies. Come 6th May, then, only 250 of the constituencies will be contested. That accounts for just over a third of the country. This means that your vote only matters in about 38% of the country. Again, pause for a second and let that sink in.

Not only are the views of over half of the people who vote not represented in Parliament, but for 62% of the country there is no point in voting, because it wont count for anything.

Now this may seem like enough evidence to say that our political system is undemocratic and unfair, but bad news comes in threes, so let’s look at what happens when we get in Parliament.

Most of the time one party has enough MPs to form a majority government. That means that, so long as they keep the support of their backbenchers, the government can force through any piece of legislation they want. They can do effectively anything they like. For five years we have essentially a one party state with a free hand to do what they will. Despite having a parliamentary majority, you have to go back to the Second World War to find an election in which any one party had over 50% of the popular vote. That means that a party without the support of the majority of the populace can rule with impunity. So let’s stop and take stock of what we’ve decided so far.

Not only are the views of over half of the people who vote are not represented in Parliament, but for 62% of the country there is no point in voting, because it wont count for anything and when they get to parliament, the winning party can run the country on their own, despite not having the support of the majority of the country. And we call this a democracy. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that we have a whole second chamber which is entirely unelected.

So we can conclude that our entire electoral system (called First Past the Post, often shortened to FPtP for obvious reasons) is entirely undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable. The solution? Proportional Representation (or PR for short), a system which simply counts up votes and assigns seats to each party in proportion to the number of votes. It means that everyone is represented, everyone’s view matters and only a party with over 50% of the vote can rule alone. In most cases this will require politicians to work together on a cross-party basis. This may be difficult for British politicians, but they manage it in most of the rest of Europe, so why I see no reason why it wont work here.

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