Why the UK Should Abandon its Traditional Electoral System
Only a few days into the UK’s general election campaign and many Brits have never felt more politically fatigued. For all the international attention the Trump dramas have garnered recently, the last five years have seen Britons head to the polls nationwide six times: three general elections including this one, local elections, European elections, and of course the infamous 2016 EU Referendum. All of which came pretty hot on the heels of Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum; a question which, although it returned a no vote at the time, remains very much alive and reinvigorated by Brexit. In recent days we have seen an exodus of exhausted members of parliament (MPs) from both the Conservatives on the right, and Labour on the left, mostly from the so-called moderate wings. It’s a tired but true refrain: I have never seen my country so divided. In such schismatic times, it remains to be seen whether our “first past the post” political system can withstand much more. And crucially for social democrats, whether left-of-centre politics can flourish within it.
Before we go any further, an explainer, particularly for American readers: The United Kingdom is split up into electoral constituencies or wards. At an election, voters mark their preferred candidate on a ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes after ballots are counted wins the seat, representing that constituency (or ward, in a local election). This “first past the post” system sits in contrast to the proportional representation (PR) systems of a number of European countries (such as Germany or the Netherlands). Under proportional representation, different preferences among the voting public are borne out proportionately in the elected government. So if x percent of voters favour a given party, then said party will be awarded approximately x percent of parliamentary seats. The defining feature of proportional representation, then, is that all votes make up the actual result, as opposed to the “winner takes all” nature of first past the post.
This explainer matters because as we will see, the electoral system we have in the UK looks increasingly untenable in the fragmented political reality unfolding.
Contemplating this election, I’m reminded of Philippa Foot’s famous moral philosophy trolley car problem: a bad thing is going to happen no matter what you decide, so do you take an action you dislike to avert what you believe to be wider-reaching carnage, or turn away from the lever (more will die but you will have clean hands)?
Corbyn’s Labour party is under an Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into anti-Semitism. The Tories have presided over years of brutal cuts to services for disabled and impoverished people, and run the National Health Service ragged with privatisation measures. The Liberal Democrats abetted them. You don’t necessarily have to be directly affected by either of these situations to know this is a grim choice. Add to this the threat a hard-Brexit poses to our economy, NHS, post-war social contract, and even our very United Kingdom itself.
In short, there is no way to vote (or not vote) in this election and retain moral vanity. And since moral vanity is such ubiquitous political and social currency these days, it’s a strange time to be alive.
In the words of one of the UK’s foremost political scientists Professor Rob Ford: “Nobody knows anything.” As the British Election Study has shown, around 33–43 percent of all voters switched parties at each of our previous two general elections. Two of the last three general elections have returned a hung parliament (for American readers, this is when no party wins a working majority), and the one that didn’t (2015) produced a majority of only 12 seats.
Despite abysmal current Labour polling numbers and betting odds favouring a Conservative majority at this stage of the game, there is every chance that anti-Brexit tactical voting-drives and a buoyant Labour campaign effort will rally their vote share, although perhaps not quite like in 2017. In 2019, Labour faces a Tory incumbent who, unlike Theresa “Maybot” May, and whatever can be said about his dearth of integrity, often manages an oafish charm. (Although his recent public appearances have been pretty shambolic, so time will tell.) Labour also has to contend with an invigorated Liberal Democrat effort (for many years the UK’s third party, before the Scottish National Party overtook them) with a young, energetic leader who has managed to position them as the “true party of Remain”—even if she has to put out eye-wateringly misleading campaign literature to make her case.
In 2017, Labour’s “constructive ambiguity” position on Brexit appeared to serve them well because many Remainers believed Corbyn was just biding his time for Remain, despite his having voted and written as a Eurosceptic since 1974. But two and a half years on, and even after finally committing to a second referendum, many have abandoned the party in despair, believing that indeed the Brexiter of forty years remains a Eurosceptic. Not to mention the many who have left in disgust at the antisemitism scandals surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and allies. The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson knows this, and it is a big part of why she pooh-poohs speculation about “propping up” a Corbyn minority government. Corbyn, for his part, is said to have rejected an approach by Unite to Remain, a tactical anti-Brexit alliance in which Lib Dems, Greens, and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru stand aside for each other in selected constituencies.
Indeed, despite all the chatter about Labour leave voters, poli-sci experts tend to predict that a Lib Dem surge looks more likely to hurt Labour than a swell for Nigel Farage’s no deal touting Brexit Party, because many former Labour voters in Leave-voting seats voted Conservatives in the last election and UKIP in 2015 anyway. Nigel Farage announced recently that his party will not field candidates in seats the Conservatives already hold, and will instead concentrate on trying to strip votes away from Corbyn’s party in leave-voting Labour seats — although again, there is every reason to think this could peel votes away from the Tories in seats they are trying to win from Labour.
The biggest threat to the centre and left is a Remain split which allows a Tory majority through. In other words, we would appear to be inching closer to a hard Brexit, spearheaded by a cabal who — whatever their spending bonanza talk now — have years of form when it comes to gutting public services; opening them up to expensive private tendering processes, selling them off, and stripping back benefits to the bone.
The most that anyone other than the Tories can hope for is a hung parliament, and there’s certainly no guarantee of that.
With all this in mind, tactical voting initiatives are going into overdrive right now, as they did in 2017, to try to predict the best way for Remainers or anti-hard Brexit voters to see off a Tory majority. This would be great for said voting bloc if the three main tactical sites agreed with each other, but they don’t.
In any case, Liberal Democrats are fielding candidates in Remain-MP Labour seats that were incredibly hard won against the Tories, such as Rosie Duffield’s constituency in Canterbury. And many Corbyn loyalists underestimate the importance of these tactical voting drives in increasing the turnout for Labour in 2017 — indeed plenty of them are now railing against such initiatives as Liberal Democrat/centrist ploys.
It’s a mess. To watch the tribal grandstanding on display, you’d think it was still the late 1990s.
Recent Oxford University pol-sci prediction models, based on current polling data, indicate that a full alliance between Remain parties in England and Wales could turn the odds against the Tories (and a hard Brexit) decisively. However, since this is based on current polling data, it can’t account for the possibility of such alliances in and of themselves changing voters’ minds and upsetting that applecart entirely. What’s more, said alliance — where candidates from the various England and Wales “Remain” parties give way for the candidate whose rosette has the best chance of winning the seat — would have to include Labour, and there seems scant chance of that.
If the first rule of politics is “learn to count,” then there are some frontbenchers that need maths lessons. Corbyn’s team is still insisting it can win a majority. It can’t. Labour lost Scotland years ago and a left-wing Labour party won’t carry England. Corbyn has now rejected the Scottish National Party’s call for a progressive alliance, dismissing talk of a bargain early second Scottish Independence referendum.
But there are other reasons a progressive alliance seems dead at the door. Labour has infuriated die-hard Remainers and confused much of the voting public with its Brexit stance. Then there are the antisemitism scandals within the Party, which have led a massive majority of British Jews (87 percent) to fear a Corbyn government — concerned, for instance, that he has appeared more willing to share a stage with Hamas and Hezbollah than the man who brought Labour to power three times. Not to mention crankish entryist Corbyn allies slated as candidates after years of campaigning against Labour for other parties, and Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman having left the party after anti-Semitic abuse from party members. This and a series of other internal rifts have pitted the back benches against Corbyn’s team; countless soft left Labour MPs who hopefully await his resignation, having made the decision to stay and fight because they do not want to cede the party to him and they do not believe that resigning in protest will be effective in a country with a first past the post political system.
Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats have come out with a clear “Bollocks to Brexit” stance (yes, our political discourse really is at meme stage now), but there are many Remainers and anti-Corbynites who will never vote for them. And not just for tribal loyalty, but because of principled opposition to the party’s continuing supine stance on the NHS and their complicity in the deepest cuts to this nation’s welfare state that we have seen for decades. Cuts that led to record levels of hunger and homelessness, described by a UN rapporteur on extreme poverty as an “ideological project causing pain and misery…(continuing) largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences.” Cuts that saw food banks become commonplace for the first time in my life. Cuts linked to miserable deaths and welfare initiatives that declared thousands of ailing people ‘fit for work’, stopping their sickness benefits before they died a short time later. And a litany of other casualties there isn’t space to list.
So there we are. This country faces the biggest political upheaval since the Second World War; one which just might break up our United Kingdom. Remainers fight, and the right, always better at horse-trading, rumbles on towards a majority. Boris Johnson — of ‘piccaninnies and watermelon smiles’ fame; who presides over the party responsible for the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of Afro-Caribbean Brits who lived here since infancy had their status suddenly revoked at great cost and were in some cases deported; who wrote in a national newspaper that Muslim women who wear the niqab look like letter boxes and bank robbers; the leader of a party amidst its own investigations (into anti-Muslim bigotry of members and councillors), a party in which an MP who spoke of potential Brexit problems as “the n*gger in the woodpile” still holds the party whip. Boris Johnson, a man entirely immune from moral self-consciousness, is currently touted to win.
Everyone seems to agree that things have changed. Everyone is wailing that we need a new type of politics. Yet just eight years ago Britain held a referendum on Alternative Voting. Under AV voters would rank their candidates in order of preference, and it was a move that could have paved the way for a parliament of proportional representation, where every vote truly counts. Despite a hung parliament in 2010, the two main parties were still cocky; they campaigned against AV, and it was annihilated at the polls.
In the few years since, news-via-social-media and punditry-by-Twitter has exploded. Politics is now a sort of extension of personal brand. And if you think this is purely a chattering-classes issue, you don’t know enough people beyond the chattering classes.
In the UK we are less partisan than we used to be — as the data on electoral volatility shows — and yet political self-expression seems never to have been more prevalent. Increasingly these days, it is less winning that matters, but demonstrating that you have taken part. We perform our politics for our peers, and algorithm-governed personalised news feeds help to ensure we don’t suffer too much of the other side’s case. Outrage is incentivized, in a feedback loop that prizes engagement above everything; little else triggers engagement quite like outrage. What’s more, as we have seen, companies like Cambridge Analytica have been able to use our detected, existing positions to guide and influence us into new positions we might not have otherwise adopted, and to spout information we might not have otherwise seen or thought credible. Such digital trends can turn us into disseminators of propaganda even as we fall for it ourselves. Political parties can pay for this. What a time to be alive.
In such a climate, political people seem more inclined to believe that their every opponent suffers not just false consciousness but malign intent. First past the post politics looks increasingly impossible for the centre and left because coalition and pragmatism are now dirty words — despite the fact that everyone, yes everyone, is sacrificing somebody.
The Lib Dems can’t win a majority and neither can Labour at this point. Without some horsetrading, the UK left and centre seem ever more impotent. Our electoral system looks increasingly out of step with our splintering politics. The politics of personal brand and first past the post do not mix. In the age of social media, the former looks here to stay. But proportional representation would allow for cooperation and the moral self-consciousness of individual voters.
For now, we are stuck with first past the post. And if we end up with a Tory majority, we can wave goodbye to any serious debate about giving way to something new. You see, right-wingers — both politicians and voters — have always been better at ruthless choices. This is why they win so much.