I passionately believe in the concept of democracy. At its core, democracy means that power lies with the people, not their rulers. Alternatives like authoritarianism, communism or anarchism are, at their best, not too great at protecting the civil liberties of their citizens. At their worst, they end up as pretty major historical whoopsies that everyone agrees was a “bad idea that should be avoided again, if poss.”
Democracy, however, cannot be classed as unlawful or unfair – in principle at least. Even if a psychopath is elected to power, if the vote was held in a totally free, fair and unbiased voting system by a well-educated electorate, then that is lawful: the people have spoken, despite the outcome.
However, there are two major issues with the UK’s own particular brand of democracy. One is true of almost all Western democracies, while one is very much a British issue.
Let’s start with the British one first.
First Past The Post (FPTP)
First up, some basics.
Britain is not a direct democracy as was the case in some of its earliest forms back in Ancient Greece. It is a representative democracy – the people do not make political decisions, but instead elect a representative to make those decisions for them, or MPs. These MPs are voted for in a General Election. Each MP is elected to represent a small region called a constituency, of which the UK is separated into 650 – there are 650 MPs, one for each constituency.
So far, so simple, right? The system works, the people are represented, democracy wins – hooray!
There are two major issues with the First Past the Post system.
- IT CREATES A DISPROPORTIONALLY LARGE AMOUNT OF WASTED VOTES
Imagine you live in the constituency of Sunderland Central, a Labour “safe-seat.”
The vast majority of people in this constituency are Labour supporters – at the last election, 55% of the votes went to Julie Elliott, Labour’s representative. This clear majority means that Elliott is elected to be the MP for this area as she gained the most amount of votes.
However, over 20,000 people voted for other parties in Sunderland Central in 2017, like the Conservatives, Green Party, UKIP etc. Their votes for these parties are wasted – the person they wanted as their MP failed to win, so their votes count for nothing.
In a nation like the UK, which historically has a very even split between Conservative and Labour voters, this means that across every constituency, around half of all votes are wasted.
So, despite taking part in the democratic process, almost half of the citizens of the UK do not have any direct influence in how the major political decisions of their country are made.
2. IT IS UNFAIR ON SMALLER PARTIES
Parties like the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats get far fewer seats than their actual national share of the vote – across the whole of the UK, the Lib Dems won 7% of the vote in 2017, which in a fair system would give them 46 seats.
They got 12.
So half of the people don’t get a say and smaller parties are prevented from having a voice in Parliament. Sounds mental right? Surely there’s a better way of doing things?!
The alternative to FPTP is proportional representation, where every vote counts and the final 650 MPs are purely representative of how the nation voted. Sounds fairer, right?
It is, but it is also chaos.
Italy has a proportional representation system, but has had to dissolve its parliament eight times in 40 years, and Belgium had to negotiate a coalition for 541 days after its 2010 general election. For any legislation to be made in a parliament, it must command a majority of support amongst MPs – in a proportional representation system, this means that parties have to form alliances with parties that might fundamentally disagree with one another in order to actually achieve anything.
First Past The Post, for all its ills, usually creates a majority for one party, which can then use that majority to pass legislation without requiring support from other parties. It is worth noting, however, that the 2017 general election in the UK did not create a majority – hence Theresa May’s partnership with the DUP (which has gone swimmingly well).
So, First Past The Post creates an unfair system, is currently failing in the UK, but the alternative might create even more chaos.
Let’s move on to the wider issue.
“A Well-Educated Electorate”
Whoa boy. This is going to be skating on thin ice with ice-skates made of flamethrowers.
In order for a democracy to work properly, the electorate must understand how it works, exactly who they are voting for and ensure that their representative enforces the promises they campaigned on.
The UK electorate is not thick, bigoted, biased or incapable of making good decisions. No human being who votes ever is, assuming you believe that no one chooses to vote to actively make society worse.
I believe that whatever someone’s beliefs, a voter will always vote for something that they believe to be the right course of action, whether that be Labour, Tory, UKIP, the Greens, or even the Monster Raving Looney Party. Whatever they choose, they do so because they believe that it is the right thing to do.
How they choose to vote, as opposed to why, is far more complex.
If, as I do, you take as fact that everyone is born equal, then you must also take as fact that the only reason why people vote for different parties and hold different political beliefs is because of socioeconomic factors – i.e. their wealth, their geography, the learned affiliation to parties through family or friends, etc.
However, there is one other, major factor, the influence of which I consider to be the single most damaging to an electorate:
I recently wrote an article about the media’s feedback on May’s promise to stand down and the indicative votes system that was recently employed as an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock. In it, I lamented the fact that the media was entirely focussed on the negatives of the stories and what would make the most eye-catching headlines, rather than reporting on some of the positive outcomes of the indicative votes process.
Unfortunately, this is the world we live in at the moment, not just in the UK, but across all Western nations. The media space is so hotly contested that every newspaper, blog, Twitter feed, TV channel, radio channel or Facebook comments section is one big race to get noticed.
How do you get noticed in a saturated market? By being more interesting than your competition.
How do you be more interesting? You use hyperbole and extreme rhetoric that grabs the attention. Look at the headline of this very article – I have to use this technique to stand out, too. I hate that I do, but would you really click on an article called “1,200 words on democracy”?
I also used a picture of the family dog, because dogs = clicks (and also because Tilly is a Very Good Dog).
What is the outcome of this extreme competition? Sensationalisation of everything.
Everything is doom and gloom. From all corners we are bombarded with messages about BREXIT CHAOS, SURGING KNIFE-CRIME or LOOMING CLIMATE CHANGE CATASTROPHE. It has to be, because we are naturally inclined to read about something that carries an immediate threat than a headline along the lines of, “Brexit is a bit tougher than previously thought.”
Even worse, many media outlets that should have a responsibility to educate the electorate simply speculate, spread rumours and appeal to the worst sensibilities of some of their readers instead.
This does not create a well-informed electorate. It creates an environment where the electorate are consumers, subject to market forces and profit-and-loss margins, and are fundamentally mis-sold information on how their democracy is run.
In a maelstrom of hyperbole, how can a voter be fairly expected to know fact from fiction and make rational, educated choices on who to vote for?
It is currently being totally glossed over that Leave.EU, the group behind the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, have just been proved to have lied, cheated, and overspent in order to get their message across. They openly lied to their supporters and their country, yet if the wider media reports on it too heavily, the backlash against the whole industry could be catastrophic. The media as we know it might even cease to exist.
Good fucking riddance, I say.
A Final, Weary Thought
It’s not pointless to vote. It’s one of the most important things you can do as a citizen of your country.
But it is only fair that you know what you’re voting for and understand the system in which you’re voting for it.
I despair when I hear people on the news say “People don’t vote for MPs, they vote for a party.” While that might be the voter’s intention, the fact is that, first and foremost, they are voting for a representative. Not a Prime Minister, not a party, but that one MP.
I appreciate that many people know this already, but everyone should know it. A society where every single voter knew this principle and was able to a well-informed decision based upon it would be achieving a true sense of representative democracy.
At the moment, however, I’m not so sure ours is.
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