My chance for a meaningful vote disappeared when I moved to the constituency of Sevenoaks – one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. If I vote Conservative I will only add to a majority and my vote will count for nothing. If I vote for anyone else then my vote will still count for nothing.
First Past the Post
In 2019 55,000 votes were cast in Sevenoaks. 10,115 of them were enough to elect the Conservative MP. That’s over 40,000 votes that counted for nothing. In that General Election 230 MPs were elected on less than 50% of the votes cast in their constituencies. The last time one party won a majority of votes was 1931 and yet majorities in terms of seats have exceeded more than 100. This system favours the largest parties and is designed to work best with only two. And there is only one other country in Europe that uses this ridiculous system and that is the effective dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
Two Party System Fails
The two party system works for the two main parties but no one else, and never for the electorate. Having only two parties likely to form Governments enables and encourages the undermining of democracy. The systems of both the UK and the US are designed around good, honest people following the rules that allow the institutions of power to operate their checks and balances as intended. And in both this has been subverted by men of similar dispositions, Trump and Johnson.
We have seen, especially with the Republicans and the Conservatives that they are prepared to use non-democratic means to manipulate the system to hold on to what should be democratic and limited power. Neither the Democrats nor Labour are exempt from treading in these murky waters – at a minimum they suppress votes by maintaining First Past the Post.
Money and influence flows in frighteningly large amounts, most obviously in the US, but increasingly in the UK. The rewards include laws that allow oil and water companies to pollute unhindered, permit individuals to make millions in unchecked and fraudulent business deals and let the corrupt gather honours and even seats in the House of Lords.
The Republicans have happily gerrymandered Congressional Districts to limit opposition votes and brought in voter ID, restricted voting times, reduced voting places and other measures to suppress minority votes. In the UK the Conservatives have started down this path. There have been only nine convictions and six cautions over five years for voter fraud, but the Conservatives are happy to spend £180 million a decade on voter ID.
Elective Dictatorship Fails
Everyone expects the Conservatives to be thrown out at the next election – and power will be handed to someone else. If Labour wins a clear majority, the PM will have virtually unbounded power – to select Ministers and finalise economic policy. Should we be unlucky enough to get a PM from the same mould as Johnson they would have the potential to operate as if the law did not apply to them.
Giving this level of power to any one individual – especially one the majority of voters did not want – is dangerous. You just have to look at recent events. The US model tries to overcome this with House, Senate and President but too often it creates roadblocks to action.
Proportional Representation (PR) Fails
PR would improve the value of some votes. Second and if necessary subsequent choices could be used as bottom candidates drop out – until one candidate gets a real majority. That might change the result in the 230 constituencies that returned minority winners in 2019. But the smaller parties would still be squeezed out of a fair representation – 865,000 votes for The Green Party in 2019 would still probably only produce 1 or 2 MPs.
I dislike the list system as used in The Netherlands – where each Party lists its potential Representatives in order and its share of the vote determines how many get seats – as this breaks the link between electorate and Representative.
Multi-member constituencies would take us one step further. As used to elect Members of the European Parliament each large constituency elects 7 or 8 members so virtually all votes get cast for a winner; and when they need help, constituents can go to the MP of their choice. Whilst Screaming Lord Sutch may still not get elected, this mechanism does mean that people like Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin, of the right-wing British National Party, will get elected. I would have no problem with this, because as odious as I may find the individuals, if they have sufficient votes then they should be elected.
What Might Succeed?
What might limit the power at the very top? The ‘strong government’ argument against anything but the two party system gave us Brexit, Johnson and Truss. What might re-engage voters so they look a little more closely at what is on offer before voting?
One suggestion has been that we should allow sixteen-year-olds to vote given they will live with the results for longer than anyone else. And the same arguments are rolled out that opposed reducing the voting age to eighteen.
We could introduce a weighted system where sixteen-year-olds get a half vote so they do not have too much impact or immediate influence. At eighteen they would get a full vote. And the corollary of this applies to people of my age. Perhaps on reaching retirement age one’s vote should only count as half. Somehow I can never see this going anywhere.
Referendums can be an excellent way to get people to engage on important issues. The Swiss use them to great effect. I think the Brexit referendum would have been far more successful and produced a genuine result if we had followed possibly the only sensible thing ever uttered by Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘We could have two referendums. As it happens, it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed.’
A two stage referendum allows a point of principle to be considered, and if it gives the go-ahead, the detail can be worked out by Government and then the electorate vote on the final deal. In the case of Brexit we would have known about the economic damage, that the £350 million for the NHS was a lie and that the only people losing freedom of movement were the British. Would a second referendum have approved this?
Citizens’ Assemblies can be a useful mechanism for allowing possible changes to complex matters to be considered with significant depth. They allow citizens to engage in open, respectful and informed discussion on a given issue. They do not make law but build consensus to advise Parliaments and Legislators so that the laws that are eventually passed have significant support amongst electors and are not just focused on a particular group to generate votes – as in ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘stop the boats’.
Citizens’ Assemblies were used to remarkable affect in Ireland to resolve how they would deal with the vexed question of abortion.
Such Assemblies do not make policy or do away with political parties. They add to the democratic process by examining complex matters, especially those, such as abortion, for which a solution has failed to be found. They make recommendations and not law. In this instance the recommendation went to a referendum which received a resounding yes vote of 66% to 33% – rather more definitive than 52% to 48%
Can We Make it Even Better?
Citizens’ Assemblies bring a limited number of people together to consider issues in depth. Ireland was careful to ensure the members were broadly representative of society, but that can never be certain.
Is there any way to extend these assemblies to our communities of millions? I find myself hankering for the campfire and the village discussion where everyone could be heard, and decisions could be made on the basis of consensus and not just a vote. The typical group size (of a neolithic village) was 150 but even if each modern ‘village’ selected one representative a second and third round would be needed to shrink the UK electorate of 50 million to a final ‘village’ for discussion. Probably too much time and too much debate for most.
Our current system gives voters one chance every few years to vote on Party proposals which may change the moment someone is in power. I would like for a system which will give the individual a more meaningful say in decisions about community/national/international matters which affect them. None of those surveyed above is entirely satisfactory. I do think that multi-member PR, Citizens’ Assemblies and two stage referendums would help.
Improving information flow is crucial .too many newspapers and broadcasters spend more and more effort telling us how and what to think, but they are biased to follow the tastes of their subscribers and their owners. Meanwhile, we become more attuned to the soundbites of social media and listen less to the careful deliberations of intelligent and thoughtful people.