How we do democracy: or, what I learned from the election

I started writing a blog post about the various highs and lows of the past few weeks. As any of my inane ramblings are wont to do it went wildly and quickly off-topic, because it turns out that as the dust has settled on the UK’s General Election (and the miasma of melancholy has been rapidly inhaled), I’ve been thinking about it a bit more than my recently acquired “I’m in denial I don’t want to talk about it anymore” attitude suggests.

I work in the public sector and I’m from a (less industrial than it used to be) city in northern England, so I’m sure it won’t be hard to guess that I was less than impressed with the results. When I walked into work under a Conservative government on May 8th, morale was through the floor and I heard at least one member of support staff saying it was time to flee to the private sector.

Friends who work in the NHS reported similar dejection, and when I was doing my usual Monday-night volunteering serving dinners at the Salvation Army, I looked around the room and thought that by the end of this parliament, we’ll almost certainly need a second sitting.

I passionately support encouraging people to vote. It’s a right for which thousands of people have fought (as I keep pointing out to men and women alike, unless you’re a king at some point somebody has campaigned for your rights) and for which many worldwide are still striving. Yet for a long while, I was really quite depressed about the fact that my country had essentially chosen to keep squashing the vulnerable and being scared of foreigners (I’m not particularly pro-Labour, either, for the record).

Of course, it was actually a fairly small proportion of eligible voters who expressly voted for a Tory government. Under the First Past the Post electoral system, you vote for the person whom you want to elect as your local MP. Whoever gets the most votes in your constituency wins, and then whichever party wins the most constituencies nationwide gets to form a government.

This all seems simple and lovely, but it creates myriad problems for democracy. Suppose the Tories had won every seat in the UK by a single vote: they’d have 100% of the seats in the House of Commons, while all the other parties combined would have 0. The difference would be less than 700 votes in a country where more than 40 million people can cast a ballot. In realistic terms, this means that if you don’t vote for the winner in your constituency, or your vote is one of the surplus votes that they didn’t need in order to win, your vote is not reflected in the outcome.

FPTP creates millions of ‘wasted votes’ and concentrates decision-making power in the hands of a small number of undecided voters in specific marginal constituencies. Then the government is formed from the biggest party in the House of Commons (or a coalition), who can pass pretty much whatever laws they like with a sorry excuse for scrutiny because they have an in-built majority. The Opposition can whine all they like, but they can’t stop a bill from being passed if the government keeps all of its MPs in line.

When I also think about all the other difficulties around elections – the socio-economic and cultural factors that exclude people from the voting process, not to mention the effect they have on who goes into politics at all – it makes for a pretty damning indictment of what was once called “the mother of all parliaments”.  I always have this nagging feeling that whenever we participate we’re upholding outdated structures that maintain the concentration of power in a few small, privileged circles.

Our political system is a shambles, an embarrassment for a nation which claims to be a bastion of democracy, and it’s easy enough to see why people just wouldn’t bother. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that not voting at all is worse than heading to the polling station. Nobody knows whether you’re ideologically opposed to the way our governments are formed, or whether you just don’t care about the process. And while you’re certainly not obliged to tell anyone which is true, it feels like a cop-out.

At the very least, I think I’d rather spoil my ballot paper – that way people know I’ve engaged with the electoral process, but aren’t under the illusion that I tacitly support the way it works. It’s quantifiable. While it may well be that nobody looks at it, if enough people did it at once it really would send a powerful message.

I think I should point out that I didn’t actually do this in the election. No, I voted for Labour for two main reasons:

  • My local MP (a Labour incumbent) has been great whenever I’ve had any dealings with her
  • There was a significant threat from the Tories and UKIP, with both of whom I have more ideological disagreements, so a strong element of tactical voting came into the mix.

Tactical voting and wasted votes are without doubt the saddest things about FPTP. Both encourage people not to bother voting for the candidates that they might actually want to win – and what’s the point of a vote if you can’t do that?

In 2011, the UK had a referendum on whether it should switch to the Alternative Vote system for future elections. I voted in favour, even though I believe AV is wholly inadequate as a replacement, because I wanted to show my support for further electoral reform and perhaps to accept that it would be the best we could get for the time being. The rest of the country disagreed (well, those who actually voted given the piss poor turnout), so we’re stuck with First Past the Post for now.

It sucks. But at least this election has drawn greater attention to the way FPTP skewers anyone who doesn’t vote for the winning candidate in a constituency (and a chunk of those who do). Given that UKIP’s vote count translated into a single MP while the SNP gained 95% of Scottish seats with 50% of Scotland’s vote, I think it’s fair to expect more talk about proportional representation in the next five years.

Sure, the Tories will never pass it themselves – and Labour will probably join them – but the very fact that more people will be thinking about it is a start. I’ve been in favour of PR for years, and if the chance arises over the next five years or beyond, I’ll do anything I can to campaign for a fairer system to convert our votes into a government.

Because that’s the one thing that this debate obscures. Democracy is bigger than an election. It’s more than something you do once every five years. Whatever you think about the way our leaders are selected, there are always other ways to be involved, and the growing support for campaign and interest groups in recent years proves that people do care about politics – just perhaps not so much about elections. However we might feel about the result of May 7th, we’ve got the freedom to have our say all year round. I want to work harder at that.

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