UKIP won 3.9 million votes & one MP. Scandalous!

The voting system subverts democracy. Time for electoral reform


By Peter Tatchell


I loathe UKIP but 3.9 million votes & one MP is a national disgrace
International Business Times – London, UK – 13 May 2015


Much as I loathe the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the fact that it won 3.9 million votes but only one MP is a national scandal and an affront to democracy. Its voters are entitled to commensurate representation in parliament.

While I oppose UKIP’s extreme right-wing policies, as a democrat I defend their right (and the right of all parties) to have a proportion of MPs that reflects their proportion of votes. It is called respecting the voter’s wishes. To deny UKIP the MPs they merit (based on their vote share) disrespects the people who voted for them and fuels public alienation from politics.

As we saw in Thanet South, where Nigel Farage failed to get elected, UKIP will be most effectively defeated by exposing their ideas, offering better policies and mobilising the anti-UKIP vote – not by the bureaucratic manoeuvre of sustaining a flawed, unjust electoral system to artificially exclude UKIP from the House of Commons.

The Chartists and Suffragettes fought for a fair voting system and a representative parliament. Property-based and male-only voting are now history. Universal suffrage is the norm. But we still have a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that perverts the people’s will.

UKIP were not the only party to be denied fair representation in the 2015 general election. The Greens secured 1.1 million votes but also ended up with only one MP. The Liberal Democrats lost out too. Despite winning 2.4 million votes they ended up with only eight MPs; whereas the SNP got 56 MPs with just over half the votes won by the Lib Dems. It’s a crazy, unfair system that produces such bizarre anomalies.

Two parties are now massively over-represented in parliament, compared to the percentage of votes they actually won.

The Conservatives secured 37% of the votes cast but took 51% of the seats. Given the voter turnout of 66%, this means they won the support of a mere 24% of registered electors.

On this basis, the Tories have no mandate and no legitimacy to govern alone. David Cameron is yet another Prime Minister who rules with the support of a tiny minority of voters and eligible electors.

This isn’t the first time. No British political party has won a majority of votes since 1931. Every government since then has ruled with minority public support. Even the Thatcher and Blair landslide of seats in 1983 and 1997 was based on a mere 42-43% of the popular vote. This is not democracy.

It is not just the Conservatives who were disproportionally rewarded with MPs in the 2015 poll. The Scottish National Party (SNP), for which I have considerable sympathy, took 95% of Scotland’s seats despite winning only 50% of Scottish votes. The 50% of Scots who voted for parties other than the SNP ended up with only three MPs to represent them. That’s not fair either.

The SNP’s 1.4 million votes secured them 56 MPs. Meanwhile, the Green Party won almost as many votes as the SNP but only one MP. UKIP also ended up with one MP despite receiving nearly three times as many votes as the SNP and the Liberal Democrats got 2.4 million votes (close to double the SNP vote) but only eight MPs.

This is not an attack on the SNP, which supports voting reform. It is a damning indictment of the ‘corrupt’ electoral system that keeps rewarding some parties with numbers of MPs that are disproportionate to the number votes cast for their party.

This disjunction has existed for a very long time. In the nineteenth century, when there were only two parties, FPTP worked well. But in a multi-party political system FPTP distorts the result and normally leads to governments based on the support of a mere 36-43% of voters and only 22-26% of registered electors.

I am not making an issue of the voting system because I am anti-Tory and because my party (the Greens) lost out. I’ve been supporting electoral reform for three decades and have previously protested outside Downing Street when Labour won power without a majority of public support; rallying alongside the Electoral Reform Society and the campaign groups, Make Votes Count and Unlock Democracy.

Indeed, the 2015 result is a repeat in reverse of 2005. In that year, despite winning only 36% of the votes cast and the support of only 22% of people registered to vote, Labour bagged 55% of the MPs and a 66-seat majority of seats. In the same election, the Tories polled more votes than Labour in England but won 92 fewer seats. Not a single MP elected in 2005 won the votes of more than 50% of the eligible electors in his or her constituency.

Is this democracy? No. It is a total farce – a mockery of democratic principles and values. Democracy is defined as a system of government based on the majority will. Clearly, our voting system does not deliver that result.

If we’d had proportional representation (PR) for the 2015 election, the result would have been very different. According the Channel Four News, under the D’hondt method of PR (which is used successfully in the European elections) the percentage of votes cast on 7 May would have resulted in the following number of seats: Conservatives 240; Labour 213; UKIP 83; Lib Dem 53; SNP 37; and Green 24.

While I’d be delighted with 24 Green MPs, overall this not a result that I would like to see. PR would have made UKIP the third biggest party in parliament. But I’m a democrat. So I’d accept the result as fair and a reflection of the popular will (while still protesting against UKIP policies).

It’s true that the UK had a referendum in 2011 on a weak form of PR, the Alternative Vote (AV). But it is not real PR and would not have delivered a markedly different result from FPTP. Not surprisingly, given that AV was the only option on offer, the referendum generated little enthusiasm, even from PR advocates. It was soundly defeated.

Since then, however, public opinion has shifted strongly in favour of PR, with a recent poll for The Independent indicating support at 61%. Only 39% want to keep the current voting system.

What, then, are the alternatives to FPTP? There are several PR options, as set out by the Electoral Reform Society.

My own preferred option is the tried and tested PR system used in the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly elections – the Additional Member System. This combines both constituency and list MPs. Local representation and accountability is retained and the list top-up ensures proportionality between votes and seats.

There are downsides but in my view PR is, on balance, preferable to the disproportionality of FPTP.

Critics say PR will result in perpetual coalitions. Is that such as bad thing? If no party commands majority support, then coalitions are the only honourable, democratic way to go. The most important thing is to have a government that reflects the majority. If coalitions are the only way to achieve this, so be it.

Many people opposed to PR also resent the fact that coalitions mean compromises. I say: if there is no clear winner, coalitions and compromises may be necessary and right. If your party hasn’t got majority support you can’t expect to ram through your policies regardless.

I want a radical Green government but only if there is a majority in favour – not off the back of a distorted, biased electoral system.

It’s time to reform the vote. Join me in signing for change:

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