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First past the post is sounding its death knell

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. 

With less than a week to go before the General Election, much of the talk has been about the unpredictability of the result: which party will have the most seats, and who will make deals with whom. Yet this is precisely the kind of talk that our First Past the Post voting system was supposed to avoid.

The current system is supposed to produce majority governments: and it’s clearly failing on its own terms. But it’s also failing to reflect how people are actually voting in the 21st century – that is, for more than two parties.

In the situation of a hung parliament, when every MP will count, that will make a huge difference as to who forms a government. When votes aren’t accurately turned into seats, the implications for democracy aren’t good, to say the least.

And people are starting to show their discontent. A new poll by BMG Research has found that 74 per cent of the British public back a more proportional voting system - they want their votes to fairly translate into seats. Support for proportional votes is strong among supporters of all parties, with 79 per cent of Conservative voters, 81 per cent of Labour voters, 83 per cent of Liberal Democrats, and 70 per cent of UKIP voters backing proportionality.

It’s also consistent across all age brackets and social backgrounds, and is mirrored in last week's YouGov LivePoll. There is, it seems, something instinctive and intuitive about the idea that votes should equal seats.  

In some ways, it’s not surprising. Everyone wants their vote to count. But they’re not getting that under our current system.  Almost every poll has Labour and the Conservatives on less than 70 per cent of the popular vote. Yet they’re expected to get around 83 per cent of seats. Meanwhile the Greens and Ukip could get nearly a fifth of the vote but less than 1 per cent of seats. That’s millions of marginalised citizens.

The situation in Scotland is even more astonishing. The SNP could win every single seat – on just over half the popular vote. Thankfully the party is committed to reforming the current voting system. But the result will be dispiriting for democrats, nonetheless. There are going to be a lot of angry and excluded voters in Scotland after the 7th - not least the 17 per cent who back the Conservatives and 20 per cent who are Labour supporters.

Even the Liberal Democrats, despite talk of them beginning to benefit under First Past the Post, will only get about 4 per cent of seats compared to around 8 per cent of the vote.

When it’s put into perspective, none of this sounds like proper democracy to most people. What kind of politics do we want?

The political landscape has fundamentally changed over the past few years. We are now a truly multi-party country, as the leaders’ debates have shown. But how we vote hasn’t caught up. We’re trying to squeeze seven or more parties into an old-fashioned two-party system. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working. And many figures are now waking up to this fact – from Lord Gus O’Donnell, to Owen Jones in the Guardian.

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. They could vote for who they actually believe in, without worrying about ‘letting in’ a hated party or having to put their cross next to a ‘lesser evil’. And the nearly-400 MPs who occupy safe seats would have to listen to a lot more voters, since other parties would finally stand a chance of getting in.

Whatever happens on May 7, there are going to be millions of voters who have been let down by our archaic voting system. Politicians would do well to recognise it – and put real reform on the agenda. 

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle