Peter Tatchell urges a new Chartist movement to secure a democratic and representative election system.
Tribune – Labour’s left-wing weekly – 28 September 2007
Britain needs a new Chartist movement to push for democratic elections and representative government. The current electoral system subverts democracy. It is corrupt, unrepresentative, anti-democratic and unfair. We are in no position to lecture Zimbabwe. Britain has its own democratic deficit.
At the 2005 general election, Labour won only 35% of the vote but secured a whopping 55% of the seats. The result was even more skewed in Scotland where, on less than a 40% share of the vote, Labour took almost 70% of the seats. Across the UK as a whole, of the eligible voters, almost twice as many people didn’t vote (39%), compared to those who voted Labour (less than 22%). Despite being supported by only a fifth of the registered electors, Labour breezed back into power with an overall 66 seat majority.
This wholesale voting sham is reminiscent of the gerrymandering and ballot-rigging of two centuries ago, which galvanised the Chartists to campaign for a democratic, representative parliament.
Further proof of this monstrous ‘rigging’ of the electoral process is the fact that, on average, in 2005 it took a mere 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, but 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and a massive 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. Almost four times more votes were required to elect a Lib Dem MP, compared to a Labour MP. We may not like or trust the Lib Dems, but such huge electoral anomalies shame our body politic.
The current government, like all its predecessors since the second world war, lacks democratic legitimacy. It does not have a mandate from anywhere near half the electorate, let alone a majority.
This is political corruption on a monumental scale. It represents a perversion of the popular will and a subversion of democracy itself. Not since the rotten boroughs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have elections been so debauched.
I can’t stand the Conservatives, but they were badly done by at the last general election. Like it or not, the Tories polled more votes than Labour in England but won 92 fewer seats. Conversely, in Surrey they won every seat despite winning only half the votes. Other parties got a raw deal too. The admittedly hideous UK Independence Party (UKIP) polled 603,298 votes nationwide, and the radical left Green Party won 257,758 votes. Neither party won any seats; leaving their voters totally disenfranchised and alienated by the electoral system.
British democracy is seriously deficient. Labour, as a democratic party, should be committed to putting it right. The electoral system is, in effect, ‘rigged’ in favour of the two main parties, Labour and Conservative. Despite their declining popular support, they conspire together to maintain the anti-democratic first-past-the-post (FPTP) method of voting, which allows the election of MPs and governments with minority support. FPTP serves the two big parties well; conveniently ensuring that power alternates between them. Both Labour and the Tories seem willing to take buggin’s turn. Principles and integrity are trumped by electoral opportunism. No wonder the voters are fed-up and have deserted the polls. They smell the stench of an unfair system which the big parties abuse to their sectarian advantage.
Labour’s connivance with anti-democratic elections, and its readiness to take power without a majority mandate, is a sad betrayal of its democratic socialist traditions. I want a socialist government, but not via manipulating the system and defrauding the voters.
The FPTP voting system was designed for a two party electoral race. It worked well when there were only two parties. But we now live in multi-party nations, with five significant parties: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green and UKIP – plus nationalist and other regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. FPTP is ill-suited to this multi-party political landscape. It thwarts the will of the voters, leaving millions without political representation in parliament.
Not a single MP now in the House of Commons won the votes of more than 50% of the eligible voters in his or her constituency. A mere three MPs secured the support of more than 40% of their electorate. Conversely, three candidates became MPs with fewer than 20% of registered electors voting for them, including George Galloway.
This is not democracy. Labour has historically fought for social justice and democratic institutions. It shouldn’t be colluding with the phoney democracy of FPTP. It is time Gordon Brown initiated electoral reform, to open the doors of Westminster to the representatives of the millions of voters who are denied a parliamentary voice by FPTP.
Labour is ethically wrong and very foolish to judge this issue from the standpoint of its own short term electoral advantage. Although the voting system is currently biased towards Labour, it was previously skewed to favour the Tories. The flaws are long-standing. No post-1945 government has won a majority of the popular vote; all have ruled on the basis of minority electoral support. Even Margaret Thatcher’s landslide majorities in the House of Commons in the 1980s were based on popular votes of less than 44%. During the Iron Lady’s hey-day, a majority of voters were anti-Tory. It’s just that the electoral system prevented the anti-Tory parties, which had a majority of the popular vote, from winning a majority of the seats in parliament and forming a government.
If it had not been for the first-past-the-post electoral system, we would never have had the Thatcher-Major governments and, as a result, never had New Labour and the ditching of socialism under Blair and Brown.
The rot has got to stop. We need a House of Commons that reflects the people’s will; where the proportion of seats won corresponds to the proportion of votes cast. In other words, a fair voting system, to ensure that every vote counts, that the government has majority support, and that parliament represents the full spectrum of voter opinion – and is not just stuffed with MPs from the big party establishments.
It is time to finish the parliamentary reform process begun by the Chartists. What is required is a new Great Reform Act to remedy the democratic deficit and secure representative democracy for the people of Britain.
The Scottish and London election systems are practical examples of a fairer electoral process. Electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party list. This combines the accountability of single member constituencies with additional ‘top-up’ MPs based on the total list vote received by each party; thereby ensuring proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it secures. It works well in Scotland and London, why not at Westminster?
Justice demands electoral reform. Since the two main parties won’t give us a fair voting system, perhaps ‘people power’ is our only option. The Chartists created a mass movement to demand a democratic, representative parliament, and so must we.
* For more info: Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform www.electoralreform.org.uk
And Makes Votes Count www.makemyvotecount.org.uk