The UK is in turmoil. As I write this, we have a Parliamentary Labour Party intent on ditching the leader chosen by the grassroots membership, apparently unconcerned that this membership remains loyal to that leader. The Conservative government is imposing a new leader on the country without the electorate being given a choice about whether they want this new leader. We have a split country with serious dissatisfaction on both sides of the late EU debate because inadequate campaigns, run by those with vested interests, did little to inform the electorate of the truth. As a result of the inflated sense of self-importance demonstrated by the majority of politicians, we have a political system that has gradually eroded all trust in our politicians.
How have we come to this situation of division, mistrust, cynicism and political chaos?
The trigger was clearly the EU referendum, which itself may have been democratic, but was it held in the interest of democracy, or was that a response to fears of electoral defeat? Is what’s happening in the country right now democratic?
The evidence is that the UK is moving further and further away from democracy and sinking into a mire of divisive politics that suits only politicians and significantly disadvantages the voting public.
What is democracy? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives a pithy definition: “Democracy: Government by the people; a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives; a form of society which favours equal rights, the ignoring of hereditary class distinctions, and tolerance of minority views.”
It’s clear the UK isn’t a true democracy and hasn’t been for a long time, if ever. The referendum is the only means the population has ever been given for exercising direct power, and most referenda are advisory rather than binding. As for representative democracy; we fail utterly under that definition. Our voting system and the resultant method of populating Parliament is aimed at ensuring one of the two major parties gains and retains power. MPs, who are supposed to represent their constituents, in fact represent only those who vote for their party. And even those fortunate individuals get representation only in those areas where the party agrees with their particular views. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the policies of the selected MP is not represented at all.
If we look at the history of electoral results in UK from 1945, it’s clear that in every general election no party gained 50% or more of the vote. The Conservatives came closest in 1955 with 49.7%, and Labour were at their nearest with 47.9% in 1966. In 1951, due to the way constituencies are skewed by parties in power, the Conservatives actually gained power with 48% of the vote against Labour’s 48.8%. And in all this, the lesser parties have never had anything like the representation their votes would suggest. The table below lists the many examples of skewed representation.
Voting in recent elections:
1945 - 72.8% Lab 47.8% (393) Con 39.8% (213)
1950 – 83.9% Lab 46.1% (315) Con 43.5% (297)
1951 - 82.6% Con 48.0%(321) Lab 48.8% (295)
1955 - 76.8% Con 49.7%(344) Lab 46.4% (277)
1959 - 78.7% Con 49.4% (365) Lab 43.8% (258)
1964 - 77.1% Lab 44.1% (317) Con 43.4% (304)
1966 - 75.8% Lab 47.9% (363) Con 41.9% (253)
1970 - 72.0% Con 46.4% (330) Con 43.0% (287)
1974 Feb – 78.8% Lab 37.2% (301) Con 37.9% (297) Lib 19.3% (14)
1974 Oct - 72.8% Lab 39.3% (319) Con 35.8% (277) Lib 18.3% (13)
1979 – 76% Con 43.9% (339) Lab 36.9% (269) Lib 13.8% (11)
1983 - 72.7% Con 42.4% (397) Lab 27.6% (209) Lib 25.4% (23)
1987 - 75.3% Con 42.2% (376) Lab 30.8% (229) LibDem 22.6% (22)
1992 – 77.7% Con 41.9% (336) Lab 34.4% (271) LibDem 17.8% (20)
1997 - 71.4% Lab 43.2% (418) Con 30.7% (165) LibDem 16.8% (46)
2001 - 59.4% Lab 40.7% (412) Con 31.7% (166) LibDem 18.3% (52)
2005 - 61.4% Lab 35.2% (356) Con 32.4% (198) LibDem 22.0% (62)
2010 - 65.1% Con 36.1% (306) Lab 29.0% (258) LibDem 23.0% (57)
2015 – 66.1% Con 36.9% (331) Lab 30.4% (232) SNP 4.7% (56) LibDem 7.9% (8) UKIP 12.6% (1) Green 3.8% (1)
The information above is shown as follows: Year of election, voter turnout, Party elected into power, % of vote, number of seats gained, 2nd party, % of vote, number of seats gained. Bold type is used to highlight those elections where voting percentages and seats gained are clearly not consistent.
It’s obvious from these results that no political party has ever had a true majority of the voters behind them. Not once since 1945 has the party in power been elected by a majority of voters. Those results do not fit within the definition of democracy. And, if we use the number of people who were on the electoral register on each occasion, the numbers are even more skewed and unrepresentative.
Perhaps you think those who don’t vote don’t deserve to be represented. But, there are many reasons why people don’t vote. Observers suggest a major reason is indifference or simple laziness. But the evidence is that, far from indifference, the real reasons for failure to vote are scepticism over whether the vote will make any difference and frustration with a system that fails to represent the true concerns of voters.
There is also evidence that it’s often the less well educated who fail to vote, either because they are not politically engaged or because they can’t understand the issues and don’t know who to trust. If this is so, then politicians are to blame for such a situation, since they have consistently failed to raise education standards across the country so that all who have the ability to learn are given the necessary tools. Education, that most fundamental indication of a civilised society, is in a poor way in the UK simply because politicians ensure it remains so.
Are you represented by your MP? The figures show that the majority of those who vote are unrepresented. The system of party politics acts against democracy by using a device accurately called ‘the Whip’ to bully party members into voting along party lines even if they, as individual MPs, disagree with such policies. That is undemocratic.
Does your MP represent you as a Labour, Lib Dem, Green Party, UKIP, or any other party supporter if that MP is a Conservative? Does the same go for each of the parties? I’ve written to my MP about numerous concerns and have yet to have a response that either agrees with my concerns or offers to support my views. I’m not alone, but in the majority in this experience. Most people’s views are not represented by their representative in Parliament.
MPs generally behave as though they are our leaders; they are not. They’re paid by taxpayers, i.e. us, to represent our views. We employ them. They’re our servants, not our masters. Yet they act as though they are in power, as though their views are more important than those they are supposed to represent. There are many instances of this; I’ll cite just two: the recent vote on assisted dying was defeated by MPs in spite of the fact that 82% of the population want a change in the law. There remains a majority of people in UK who believe capital punishment should apply in cases of murder, but MPs refuse to address this concern. Whether you agree or not with these particular issues, they are the concerns of the majority, and in a democracy such concerns should hold sway. That is what democracy means. But our system of voting and government mean that the people are failed by those elected to serve.
So, who do our MPs represent? First and foremost, their party, of course. But the evidence is that they also represent the interests of Big Business, Media Moguls, Trade Unions, powerful lobbying groups and any of a number of organisations not representative of the voters of this land.
What can we do about it?
We can press all politicians into adopting a change to a fairer system.
At present, as demonstrated by the table above, every voter in the land is at some stage disadvantaged by our current ‘first past the post’ system. It denies any voice to everyone who fails to vote for the winning party. This has meant, certainly since 1945, that more than half the votes cast, regardless of the eventual ruling party, have always been ineffective. In turn, this means we are always ruled by a party that has less than half of the country behind it. If we include the full electorate (and there are reasons why we should) then the imbalance becomes even more extreme. Our current government is in power with only 36.9% of the votes made by those who actually voted. If you include the whole electorate, the proportion is reduced to 23%, which means that the government is acting on behalf of a little over a fifth of the electorate. In any rational examination of democracy, that cannot be considered an acceptable result. It leaves nearly 80% of the country unrepresented. Even if we exclude those who didn’t vote, we still have a government in power that represents only a little over one third of the voters: two thirds are unrepresented. Yet this government acts as though it has a mandate. It clearly has no such mandate from the majority of voters and therefore is undemocratic.
Democracy is often characterised as the best of a bad bunch of governing methods. But we’ve adopted a system that’s the worst of the democratic systems available. What makes it even more unsuitable is that the system is self-perpetuating: there’s no perceived advantage to the major parties to make a change, as they would undoubtedly be the losers under a reformed system of voting.
There are moves afoot to rouse the population into a more active participation in voting whilst calling for a fundamental change in the way we make those votes. The major parties resist such change out of a selfish desire to hang on to their positions of power. Let’s be honest here: most politicians demonstrate, regardless of what they may say, that they’re involved in government for themselves, not for their constituents. If the latter were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this piece, as the politicians themselves would long ago have adopted a fairer system of electing MPs.
So, we need to move to a fairer system of voting, and the most equitable system is Proportional Representation. Of course it has its problems, but it results in a much fairer distribution of seats in Parliament than our current system. Some argue that such a system would result in more ‘hung’ Parliaments and therefore coalitions. They say this as though it’s a bad thing. But is it? Who does our current system serve? Not us, the voters, who lose out with each election. It serves only the politicians who belong to the major parties, and even they suffer the consequences when the vote goes against them. The result is a continual swinging of the pendulum from right to left and back again. It serves no good purpose and encourages conflict politics, when what we need for stability and justice is the politics of consensus.
Perhaps it’s also time to look at two other contentious issues: compulsory voting and lowering of the voting age. I won’t go into detail here, but compulsory voting would mean everyone would at least be motivated into taking an interest (including ‘government’ as a topic in the curriculum of state schools could begin to educate all future voters). And, with internet access now almost universal, a change to online voting would even help those who have difficulty finding time or energy to place their cross in a box on the ballot paper. As for lowering the voting age: all political decisions impact on the young for longer than they do on the older population. Again, education could help people be more aware of the real choices.
For those who believe we are powerless in this political mess, I point you to the table below that lists some of the changes that have occurred to our system of government over the centuries, almost all of which came about through public pressure. We live in the age of the internet, a device that makes protest much less taxing than it used to be. It’s very easy to gather enough signatures to cause Parliament to seriously debate popular issues.
There’s much that’s wrong with our political system. Some of that injustice can be easily corrected. Other aspects will take more time and political will. But we can drive those changes. All I suggest is that all voters consider the issues and take the trouble to act on those things they consider unjust. Our voting system is the start. We also need to have changes to our upper house, currently a chamber of unelected persons who are not accountable to us as voters and who are often utterly unsuitable for the positions they occupy. We need to modernise the whole machinery of Government, move it to a more central location and remove the barriers that prevent those without financial means from engaging in politics. We need to develop a system independent of such influences as Big Business, Media Moguls, Industry Chiefs, Banks, and even the church if we are to create a fair system that actually represents the majority of voters.
Some historic events along the route to a better democracy:
1215 Magna Carta signed.
1265 Simon de Montfort’s parliament comes into being.
1832 English Reform Bill changes 400-year-old rules on elections, extending the vote to 1 in 7 men.
1872 secret ballots introduced.
1918 some women get the vote.
1928 equal voting rights for women introduced.
1958 Life Peers introduced to House of Lords.
1969 voting age dropped from 21 to 18.
1999 end of hereditary peers in House of Lords.
1 Dec 2011 – registered voters = 46,107,152
At the end of 2013 – registered voters = 46,139,940
By Dec 2015 – registered voters = 45,325,078
2010 gen election – 45,600,000 registered voters. 29,700,000 actually voted.
2015 gen election - 46,400,000 registered voters. 30,800,000 actually voted.
71.8% of registered voters took part in the EU referendum. Out of a total electorate of 46,500,001, 16,141,241 voted to remain and 17,410,742 voted to leave.
Published by Stuart Aken