British politics is broken — and the electoral system is at the heart of it

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Make Votes Matter

There are lots of ways in which British politics just isn’t working at the moment, but as we’ve moved from generic political ranting at each other to general election ranting at each other over the past week, I’ve become more and more convinced that our electoral system sits at the heart of almost all the problems we have. It’s a corroding influence at the heart of the system, warping the way the rest of politics works in order to cater to its whims, and if we’re ever going to have a better politics in Britain, then it needs to be changed. (There’s a lot of other things that need to be changed as well, but a different electoral system is necessary for a better politics, even if it’s not sufficient in itself)

When I wrote about tactical voting the other day, I did try to stick to the facts about how it works in our current system — because it’s not going to change before December 12th — but the fact that we have to these long debates about how to vote at every election is a sign of a system that’s not working.

Think about how much heat and how little light has been generated by the rows over tactical voting sites in the last week and how much the well has been poisoned, not by policy differences between parties but by people arguing over which, if any, tactical voting site was the best to follow — or even if there was a point to doing it anyway. Why are we having these arguments? Because we’ve got into a situation where democracy has become boiled down into a set of zero-sum games of winning and losing individual constituencies, where what should be just one stage in an ongoing process has become an all-important event.

One of the supposed advantages of our electoral system is that it provides clear results and gives one party a clear mandate to govern. Leaving aside the issue that the last election that resulted in a single-party majority and a Prime Minister serving a full term was in 2001 (before some people who’ll vote in 2019 were born) I have to question whether this is as good an idea as we assume it is. Our system is built around the idea of single-party government, with the idea that only one party will hold all the levers of power and that they will have a majority in the Commons to pass through their legislation. Just as all the institutions of government and parliament are based around that assumption, we keep our electoral system because it supposedly supports that process.

There’s a practical problem with this assumption in that no party since the Second World War has ever received the support of a majority of the electorate at an election, and I think that reveals a deeper problem that outsourcing all decision-making about the way the country runs to the internal workings of one self-selected group is not a healthy way to operate a democracy. We’ve seen that flaw pushed to extremis over the last few years where the government’s key Brexit question has been “what compromise will keep the Conservative Party united?” rather than “what compromise will keep the country united?” but that’s just an extreme example of an ongoing problem where once elections are over, the views of more than half the country are excluded from the discussion.

This system is just about tenable in a situation where politics is purely bipolar with the country split roughly down the middle and a non-neglible number of voters who’ll pass between the two sides, allowing there both to be occasional transfers of power, and a motivation for both parties to push towards a consensus. It’s in those conditions that you can also just about make a case for using first past the post as an electoral system because it is logical to use if you’re choosing between two candidates for one position. (But note that FPTP can mess up even in these circumstances: in 1951, Labour got the most votes and one of the highest percentage shares for a party ever in the UK but still ended up in opposition)

The problem we face now is that the country isn’t one that can be divided politically into two groups that contain all possible permutations of political opinion within them. Political opinion and identity is divided across a number of cleavages, all seeking to be represented within the political process, but with the majority of them being excluded. All our systems are based around the idea that we still live in a world of binary, either/or zero-sum politics, and trying to squeeze the multiple variations of modern life into that mould just isn’t working. Brexit is a symptom of a political system that ceased to be fit for purpose years ago, not the cause of an otherwise adequate system breaking down.

This brings us to the problem with our electoral system. At its heart a parliamentary election is a process for capturing the opinions of the people on a wide range of issues and ensuring that those opinions are represented as best as possible in Parliament. However, as well as being a process about representation of ideas, it can also be seen as a way of ensuring that every place within the country is represented, and the design of any electoral system is about how we balance between those two pressures — how do we represent opinions and ideas, and how do we represent places? We have an electoral system that’s set up to do the latter. It used to do the former as a side-effect of doing that, but now whole swathes of opinion are not being represented.

Like the rest of the system, the electoral system is trying to squeeze a new situation into an outmoded way of doing things. We don’t have one national election, we have one national election discussion that’s then broken down into 650 different and distinct contests in which each voter then has to try to work out how to relate the national and the local. Do they vote for the ideas they want to see in Parliament? Do they decide on who will be the best at speaking up for their area? Do they accept that their preferred choice can’t win locally and back another, or stick with their original to boost their national vote share? What if they like what a party is saying nationally but the local candidate is saying something different, or vice versa? Where do they get the information from to make informed choices about what their decisions are, let alone how to make them? There are a bewildering number of different processes and decisions going on that we expect to be represented by a single cross in a box. The electoral system is the most common point at which individual voters interact with the wider political system and it just doesn’t work, which means the rest of the system has no chance of making up for that problem at its heart.

We need a politics that not only works better in making decisions and doing things but that represents people much better than it does now, and lets people see that their views, not just the place they live, are being represented in Parliament. More than that, we need a system that doesn’t try to create or imagine majorities and mandates where none exist then forces the consequences of those through. That process has to start with an electoral system that gives people the confidence to not only express what they actually want but the knowledge that they can have power and affect the system through their vote. So when politicians over the next few weeks talk about rigged systems and broken trust, they need to address the broken system at the heart of our politics and commit to changing it.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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