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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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era