The Chartist goal of a representative parliament and majority government is still sadly unrealised
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
London – 9 November 2009 – New Statesman
Whenever Gordon Brown decides to call the general election, one thing is certain: the party elected to power will have no genuinely democratic, popular mandate. It will win office with the support of only a minority of voters.
This flawed outcome is guaranteed by the distortions of the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. In the 2005 general election, Labour won 35% of the vote but secured 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 eased back into power with an overall 66 seat majority.
This 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 the 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. Such huge electoral anomalies shame our body politic.
The current government, like all its predecessors since the 1950s, 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.
The Conservatives were badly done by in the last general election. They 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 get a raw deal too. The UK Independence Party polled 603,298 votes nationwide in 2005, and the Green Party won 257,758 votes. Neither party secured any seats; leaving their voters totally disenfranchised and alienated by the electoral system. This denial of parliamentary representation to vast numbers of voters is a crime against democracy.
The electoral system is, in effect, ‘fixed’ in favour of the two main parties. Labour and Conservative conspire together to maintain the anti-democratic FPTP voting method, which allows the election of MPs and governments with minority support. FPTP serves them well; conveniently ensuring that power alternates between the big-two parties. 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.
Labour’s connivance with the undemocratic FPTP system, and its readiness to take power without a majority mandate, is a sad betrayal of its democratic socialist traditions. I want a green socialist government, but not via an unfair electoral system that defraudes the voters.
FPTP was designed for a two-party electoral contest. It worked well when there were only Whigs and Tories. But we now have five significant UK-wide parties: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green and UKIP – plus nationalist 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 current MP 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. The Mother of Parliaments has become the Thief of Political Representation. We’ve had too many elections stolen by FPTP. It’s time to cleanse the House of Commons of MPs who owe their seats to the unjust voting system. The doors of Westminster need to opened wide to the representatives of the millions of voters who are denied a parliamentary voice by FPTP.
Although the electoral system is currently biased towards Labour, it was previously skewed to favour the Tories. These flaws are long-standing. No post-1950 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 1980s were based on popular votes of less than 44%. During the Iron Lady’s hey-day, a majority of voters were anti-Tory. But the electoral system prevented the anti-Tory parties from winning a majority of seats in parliament and forming a government.
Without FPTP, we might never have had the Thatcher and Major governments and, as a result, possibly never had New Labour and the ditching of socialism under Blair and Brown. No poll tax and no Iraq war?
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 establishment parties.
It is time to finish the parliamentary reform process begun by the Chartists, with a new Great Reform Act to remedy the democratic deficit and secure a fully fledged 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. If the two main parties won’t give us a fair voting system, ‘people power’ might be our only option. The Chartists created a mass movement to demand a democratic, representative parliament, and so must we.
* More information: Vote for a Change www.voteforachange.co.uk and Peter Tatchell www.petertatchell.net