I feel anxious about writing this article. Within minutes, anything I write could become out of date, irrelevant or untrue. In other words, I could be wasting my time.
That’s because politics is in a state of flux. It has descended into chaos. Nobody knows what could happen next, or who the next victim will be.
Britain has voted to leave the EU. We have a new Prime Minister. Scotland is potentially on the verge of another independence referendum. Labour, the Green Party and UKIP all have leadership contests. A snap general election may be called at any moment.
A plethora of reasons for the current political turmoil have been suggested but in reality there is a central deficiency in our political system that is behind them all. A democratic Achilles heel that leaves millions locked out of political participation. One archaic institution that caused the Brexit vote, the rise of the SNP, David Cameron’s resignation and Labour’s internal strife: our voting system.
The vote for Brexit on the 23rd June was a massive rejection of the political class. Used by many to punish the government, the referendum was a symptom of our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system.
No matter how you voted, it is very clear that many millions of people voted Leave because they felt left behind and unrepresented. Some of the strongest Leave votes came in safe Labour seats, supposedly a resolutely pro-EU party. For these people, whose votes had never counted before, they used the referendum to make the most of a vote that mattered. For the first time, millions of people had a vote which would influence the final result and they used it to punish the MPs who they felt didn’t represent them.
For decades, First Past the Post has meant that a tiny minority of voters in a handful of marginal seats decide the results of our general elections. In 2015, for example, 99.6% of the four million votes for Ukip were wasted, and had no influence on the final result or the number of Ukip members of parliament elected. Labour increased their share of the votes but ended up with 26 fewer MPs. 1.5million votes for the SNP elected 56 MPs whilst 1.2million votes for the Green Party elected just one.
It is no surprise that after an election where the majority were disillusioned and disenfranchised that the electorate would seize the opportunity to kick the establishment.
The theme that dominated coverage of the referendum was the splits in the Conservative party. This too is a manifestation of our voting system. The Conservative Party is not ideologically united, the only thing keeping them together is the knowledge that with FPTP two right wing parties would split the vote and ensure a Labour government.
One common argument against a more proportional voting system is that it would give disproportionate power to fringe groups but in reality this is already the case. The right wing of the Conservative party has had remarkable control over the (relatively) moderate David Cameron. Even the referendum is a product of Cameron’s appeasement of right wing Tory MPs, for fear of more voters and MPs defecting to UKIP, potentially splitting the vote and making Ed Miliband Prime Minister. If it was not for FPTP, the Conservatives would be able to split and the voters would have the final say over what type of MPs they would want to represent them.
The same is true of the Labour Party. The divide between left and right in the party has never been more stark and the upcoming leadership election is sure to be bruising. Do Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn belong in the same party? Would Tony Blair and Diane Abbott get together and found the Labour Party if it didn’t exist? Labour has learnt the lessons of the 1980s, with the creation of the SDP in 1981 and subsequent election victories for the Tories in 83 and 87. With FPTP, multiple progressive parties spells electoral doom.
The problem with this situation is that it means voters have no choice. If you are a Corbyn supporter, you are expected to settle for Liz Kendall if she is your local candidate. If you are a eurosceptic Tory then you’ll have to hold your nose and vote for a Europhile if he or she is the local candidate.
One of the biggest anomalies of FPTP in 2015 was Scotland, where the SNP won 95% of the seats with just 50% of the votes. But the link between the rise of nationalism in Scotland and FPTP goes far deeper than this.
Before 2015, Scotland was home to one of the biggest electoral deserts in the UK. Labour dominated Scottish politics and every election Scotland would return tens of Labour MPs. As a result, Scotland was ignored by politicians of all colours who knew that no matter what happened Scotland would vote Labour. In 1986, faced with an upcoming election, David Willetts, as a Downing Street policy advisor, advised Margaret Thatcher to make deep cuts in ‘pampered Scots’ public spending. He said:
The voters in marginal seats in England were far more important to the government than those in Scotland, demonstrating how FPTP leads to bad government. If Scotland leaves the union, just as with Britain leaving the EU, our voting system will have played a significant part.
It may have been the EU referendum that triggered the recent political uncertainty but the roots of this chaos run much deeper. The only way to re-engage those who feel disillusioned with the political system is a proportional voting system where their voices are counted equally. The only way to ensure that government is in the interests of the whole country is a voting system in which every vote counts equally, rather than elections being decided in a few marginal constituencies. The only way to bridge the deep divides in our society is a system where all people have a say in how the country is run. We need proportional representation.