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The Decrepit UK Political System

Photograph Source: Stephen Craven – CC BY-SA 2.0

The Covid-19 pandemic and the continuing Brexit crisis have cast an unforgiving light on the UK’s failed political system, the pivot of which lies with its “first past the post” (FTTP) election structure. It should be noted that in this respect the UK is similar to the US, and that the UK is the only country in Europe which uses FTTP.

This constitutively imbalanced voting structure, coupled with the machinations of a corrupt Establishment, has brought the UK’s political system to its knees.

To quote a report produced by the Electoral Reform Society on the 2019 general election: “In December 2019, over 22.6 million votes (70.8%) did not contribute to electing an MP”, meaning that over 70% of those who voted did not get the MP of their choice. In effect, the votes of this 70% were materially irrelevant to the outcome of the election, which was a resounding 80-seat majority for Boris “BoJo” Johnson’s Tory party.

The report shows that out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, 316 seats are safe seats, indicating that their incumbents just need to go through the barest motions of campaigning in order to be re-elected.

Before the 2019 elections, the average UK constituency had not changed hands for 42 years, with 192 seats (30% of the total) last changing party in 1945 or earlier, and 65 seats (10% of the total) being held by the same party for over a century.

Add to this the fact that the UK’s second legislative chamber (the House of Lords) is unelected, having members for life on the basis of heritage and political appointments. Moreover, 26 bishops sit in the Lords, making the UK rank alongside Iran with clerics exercising a legislative function.

The evidence shows that FPTP is highly expedient for parties which seek to rule the majority via what can only be described as a form of institutionalized fraudulence: guaranteed safe seats, gerrymandering (though not yet on the scale to be found in the US), arcane electoral franchise, and so on.

The problem is worsened by the fact that the 2 parties which have taken turns to be in government for the last century— the Tories for most of that time, and Labour— have not shown the slightest interest in changing a rotten system.

BoJo is a populist, but he rides on the back of a form of governance which denies the voting populace its real wishes.

But are there viable alternatives to this wretched state of affairs?

The above-mentioned Electoral Reform Society report provides an interesting scenario should proportional representation (PR) have taken the place of FPTP:

+ The Tories would have won 288 seats (-77 compare to FPTP. The Tories gained an extra 48 seats (7.4% increase in seats from 2017) on a 1.3% increase in vote share, providing a majority of 80 seats, the largest for the Conservatives since 1987. In the 2017 election the then Tory Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority on a similar vote share!)

+ Labour would have won 216 seats (compared to 203 at present, their worst result since 1935)

+ The Lib-Dems 70 seats (+59)

+ The Green Party 12 seats (compared to 1 at present)

+ Nigel Farage’s far-right British Party 11 seats (compared to 0 at present)

+ The Scottish National Party (SNP) 28 seats (as opposed to 43 at present)

Under PR the biggest losers would have been the Tories and the SNP, with the Lib-Dems and the Green Party as the clear beneficiaries.

The argument is sometimes made that fringe political parties such as Farage’s Brexit Party having a voice in the parliament will enable marginal parties to exert a disproportionate influence on parliamentary business. The counter to this is that extremist groups exist within the main parties themselves. For instance, there is a clone of the Brexit party within the Conservative Party itself—the hardline Brexit Europe Reform Group (ERG) has 80-plus members, making Farage’s party with its putative 11 seats seem like small beer.

Under a hybrid voting system such as the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP/AMP), the Conservatives would have lost 81 seats, making the Lib-Dems and the Green Party the clear gainers.

In MMP/AMS elections, voters choose a candidate in their constituency (elected under FPTP) and have a second vote for their preferred party. Each party declares a list of candidates in advance. Voters can cast both their votes for the same party or vote for different parties in their constituency and regional ballots. The listed seats are then allocated to parties on a proportional basis, usually employing some form of voting threshold (generally 5%).

Single Transfer Voting (STV) would have seen the Tories losing 53 seats and the SNP losing 18 seats.

A typical proportional system will give a Deviation from Proportionality (DV) score of 5–8%.
At present the UK’s DV score is 16%. The highest DV is in Scotland with 36.4%, followed by Northern Ireland with 30%, then England with 17.5%.

The skewing represented by these figures is reflected in how the parties turn their votes into parliamentary seats.

The FPTP system creates big differences between a party’s national vote share and its share of seats.

Since a general election effectively consists of 650 local elections (“districts” in the US), the final result depends not just on the total number of votes secured by each party, but just as importantly on where these votes happen to be cast.

In the 2019 election, the 2 biggest gainers of seats were the Conservatives and the SNP. Both parties were very successful in turning votes into seats. The Tories share of the UK national vote was 43.6%, but their share of seats was 56.2% (12.6% points higher). The SNP won 3.9% of the UK vote but 7.4% of the seats. Focusing on Scotland alone, the SNP won 45% of the vote but 81% of Scottish seats.

Labour’s vote share in the 2019 election (32.1%) tallied closely with its seat share (31.1%), even if not quite as closely aligned as in the 2017 general election (40.0% and 40.3% respectively).

This disproportionality between votes cast and seats gained can also be displayed in terms of votes-per-seat-won.

In the 2019 election the Tories got 1 seat for every 38,264 votes, while Labour got 1 seat for every 50,837 votes. It took many more votes to elect a Lib Dem (336,038) or Green MP (866,435), but far fewer to elect an SNP MP (25,883).

I experienced the vagaries of FPTP when I lived for over 2 decades in several parts of the UK (Staffordshire, Reading, a salubrious neighbourhood in Birmingham, Suffolk, Cambridge, and Cheltenham). Never in that time and in those places was my MP anyone but a Tory.

As a Labour supporter, I considered myself effectively to be disenfranchised.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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