Friday, May 13, 2005

Apathy in the UK

The 'Mother Of All Democracies' is in stagnation. Even in an election fired up by enormous controversy over the war in Iraq and with a resurgent opposition really putting the heat on the incumbent government, the overall turnout last week was just 61% - the second lowest in a century. Not even two thirds of the country who are even registered to vote at all bothered to get out and do so.

There are numerous reasons for this state of affairs, but I would suggest that the most significant is that a great number of people do not feel engaged whatsoever with the political process. And this is hardly a surprise when you consider modern electoral campaigning methods. At this election, more than any other, the battle for hearts and minds took place in a small number of marginal seats - about 100 of the 646 available fell into this category. The consequences? Firstly, if you happened to live in one of the other 546 constituencies, you'd have had better odds of getting bum sex with the Pope than actually seeing a political candidate canvassing for your support. Far quicker (not to mention cheaper) for the parties to rely on sophisticated polling methods to determine where they really need to interact with their electorate. Secondly, because voters are being wooed in only 15% or so of the country, it is only in these places that the core election agenda is being set.

This further compounds the spread of voter apathy. The issues become more and more narrow and party policies more and more alike. The majority of voters realise that, whatever they do, it probably isn't going to make much of a difference to the outcome and, in any case, the two main parties are promising such similar things it's hardly going to matter anyway. Meanwhile, if you want to give your vote to the third party, our glorious first-past-the-post electoral system will make sure that, in most cases, your vote is effectively worthless.

The way that our system distorts the vote is absurd. Let's take a look at this year's election outcome. Overall, Labour received 35.2% of all votes cast, yet they won 356 seats - 55.1% of those available. 32.3% of the electorate voted Conservative, which translated into 197 seats - 30.5% of the House of Commons. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, despite getting 22% of the vote, got royally shafted again: 62 seats won - just 9.6% of those up for grabs. Nobody can tell me that this is true democracy. Under a system of proportional representation however, things would have been very, very different and the House of Commons make up would have been something like this:

Labour - 227 seats
Conservative - 209 seats
Lib Dems - 142 seats
Other - 68 seats

In other words, a genuine reflection of each party's popularity nationally.

Now, I'm fully aware of the arguments against PR. Yes, the FPTP system nearly always delivers a strong government, as opposed to the inevitable coalitions that PR would necessitate. But at what cost? Not a single government in the last fifty years has actually won an outright majority in terms of votes cast: 42% (or less in recent years) has always been just about enough to deliver a party to government with an enormous majority (most notably the Tories in 1987 and Labour in 1997), ensuring they can pretty much steam-roll whatever bills they want. Agreed, coalition government would be arguably "weaker", but when you consider some of the crappy laws that have been passed without proper debate or scrutiny I would argue that this would actually be a strength. Another argument that's always rolled out is that we lose local representation because constituencies would either be abolished, or MPs would be placed by a party-list system, which hands yet more power to the executive. Yes, but who actually votes locally anyway? Elections are increasingly presidential in their nature. In reality people are voting for either the party leader or at least the general principles of the party; rarely are they considering the individual merits of the candidates standing in their constituency. In any case, there would still be local authority elections that can address parochial concerns.

The fact is, less and less people are bothering to exercise their democratic right and this is a trend that needs to be reversed. PR is not a panacea for our electoral malaise, but it would go a long way towards improving voter turnout. Just think how many people you hear complaining that their vote is wasted purely because of where they live: perhaps if you could guarantee that every vote counted, we'd all be more enthusiastic about taking part in the process. Another positive consequence would be a broadening of the political choice available to us: a more pluralistic system would emerge, with parties better equipped to truly represent the diverse range of opinion in this country. Now that's got to be attractive to the 65% of the electorate that did not vote for the present government.

Labour actually promised a referendum on PR as part of their 1997 manifesto. Well, Mr Blair, we're still waiting. You've got a few years (perhaps less) to truly make your mark on our political system - how about concentrating on electoral reform and delivering us a truly world class democracy? PR would be an excellent start. Oh, and while you're at it, get stuck into the House of Lords again will you? Not a bad idea to have the upper chamber actually, you know, elected, is it?

Just a suggestion.

5 comments:

ph said...

Hate to agree with you but in this case I feel I must.

Only caveats are:
1. Pure PR would not be the solution. Blair got Lord Jenkins to form a commission that would deliver a much fairer form of election, based upon PR, but retaining some of the constituency representation and removing the possiblity of very minor parties holding political sway. Unfortunately T.B. ignored it.

2. In a P.R. system a vote for the Lib Dems would be more meaningful and people would have to give their policies more thought. On close reflection I doubt the Liberals would get many votes at all, it is amazing how many people who disagreed with their policies still voted for them. The closest thing we have to PR was the E.U elections and the Lib Dems came 4th.

Andrew Brown said...

The Pope must be wishing he stayed a cardinal. I spent quite a lot of this election out and about with my local candidate (safe Labour seat that it is) where she tried to persuade lots of people to vote for her.

Admitedly with the drop off in party membership there certainly weren't as many of us helping to spread the good word as there were in 1997 or 2001.

I'd say it's that which is driving the way that parties are looking to campaign as much as anything else. Although clearly marginal seats do get more resources - visits from senior party figures, posters etc. Still, there is quite heavy duty consequences if candidates spend too much on their campaigns.

Anonymous said...

All good points - though the rekindling of this debate is the same old story of politicians complaining about the injustices of the electoral system, until it benefits them (hence Blair renegading on Jenkin's recommendations).

Now the Tories are at it. Politics is, above anything else, about power. Politicians will always support the system that is most likely to give it to them - or to keep it with them.

sparx said...

A genuine miracle, everyone agrees with you Sane. This must surely be a good thing when people from all backgrounds realise something stinks. The question now is, how do we get it changed? Is a party with a healthy majority going to willingly hand over power and is an opposition who probably won't gain a majority themselves going to support change?

That'll be no then.

I fell a red mist coming down. Comrades, a revolution is on the cards.

Alex Swanson said...

One point that almost all PR advocates miss is this: you are assuming that the way people vote now is the same way they would vote under a new system. I'm not aware of any evidence that this is so; so for example, when you say that the system is unfair to the Lib Dems, you are ignoring the fact that many people voted for them in the sure knowledge that it wouldn't have any practical effect. If they knew it would, they might not have voted that way.

If you abandon FPTP then you do lose the link between MPs and the population as a whole, and the best support for this link is the "Michael Portillo moment".

Furthermore, I think it's generally accepted that many people feel alienated by the whole political process. I don't think it's the electoral system that causes this; I think it's the political culture that ensures that many people's concerns and opinions are effectively not debated. PR would make this worse, not better, by concentrating power in fewer hands, and making senior politicians more secure in their posts.

What I would suggest is that you leave the House of Commons alone, and instead replace the House of Lords with a Senate which would be elected by PR. This would avoid the problems of PR in the main chamber, but force governments to respect the concerns of minorities in drafting legislation, and provide a forum for the discussion of opinions which might otherwise not get proper representation.