News today that Britain’s voting system is said to be “broken” comes as no surprise. What is left unsaid in a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), however, is that the political system itself is in a state of terminal decline.
The IPPR report Worst of Both Worlds explains in convincing detail why the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system is increasingly undemocratic and why things can only get worse.
it found that just 1.8 per cent of the electorate - less than 450,000 voters - decided the outcome of the May election in 108 marginal constituencies. “The overwhelming majority of us live in safe seats where we are increasingly neglected by the political parties both during and between elections –and where we have little chance of influencing the result of general elections,” the report notes.
As we know, the election produced a hung parliament and Britain’s first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. Drawing on academic research, and conducting its own analysis of voting election data, the IPPR report suggests that the 2010 election result was not a one-off aberration.
“Instead, we believe it reflects long-term changes in voting patterns across the UK – declining support for the two main parties and divergent support for them across the nations and regions of the UK – that significantly increase the likelihood of hung parliaments in the future. Unless FPTP is reformed the UK will be left in the ‘worst of both worlds’: a voting system that neither delivers fair representation nor single-party majority government.”
The report shows the dramatic shift away from Labour and the Tories over the last 60 years. In 1951, the parties polled 96.8% of the total electorate between them at that year’s general election. By last year, the figure had slumped to 65.1%. Yet the voting system continues to reward Labour and the Tories, who between them won 86% of the seats in the House of Commons last May .
The rise in support for third parties makes it more difficult for individual MPs to secure a majority of support (50% or more) among their local electorate, which, says the IPPR, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of MPs to represent their constituents. “It also makes it much harder for governments to win an overall majority nationally, which again undermines the representativeness of governments formed under FPTP.”
The IPPR, which was a strong supporter of New Labour governments, is concerned that “Britain will become increasingly divided electorally, and governments will be formed that lack widespread support across the country”.
The report will lend support to those campaigning for the alternative vote (AV) system in the referendum scheduled for the coming May. This has already led to some bizarre alliances with, for example, some trade unions joining with right-wing Tories in a bid to block a “Yes vote”. Most Labour MPs are against AV, which is not surprising because their party only needs a three-point lead in votes in order to secure an overall majority, whereas the Conservatives need about an 11 point lead.
But surely the point is that an unfair voting system reflects a broken political system, as reflected the decline in voter turn-out (especially among new generations). Increasingly, politics is part of a state structure where corporate and financial interests predominate. The last government bailed out the banks and the Coalition is cutting the deficit to appease the money markets.
Over the last 30 years of globalisation, Parliaments and governments have become bit players in a world dominated by ultra-powerful transnational interests. No amount of fiddling with the voting system will change that. A transition to new forms of democratic government around the concept of People’s Assemblies is what beckons in 2011.