A democracy in decline; the case for Electoral Reform

by Michael Rennie

Our democracy is lost at sea. As the political landscape changes at a rapid pace, Britain’s voting system needs to reflect the ever changing views of the British electorate. In modern political times, voting is like supermarkets, voters shop around to find the best deal rather than vote for one party all their lives. The two horse race days are well and truly over. For too long now, the views of a large chunk of the British electorate has been brushed aside and thrown into the political wilderness, as if they are completely meaningless because of a voting system stuck in Victorian times. The media is changing, smaller parties now have a foothold in terms of media representation. But ultimately no matter how many how many interviews they get on TV, how many positive newspaper articles are writing about them, they will ultimately fall victim to first past the post voting system. A system designed to stomp them down. Take UKIP as an example, 1 in 8 voters opted to vote for them at the 2015 General election. How many seats did they win?  40? 50? No. 1 seat.

One of the biggest failures of first past the post is the draining of voter turnout in many, many constituencies all over the UK due to “safe seats”. Safe seats are eroding our democracy. City by city, town by town. That’s not the fault of the voters. What’s the point of trekking all the way to the polling station on a bitter day in May to vote in a constituency where the incumbent party has a majority of 50%? The fact that politicians use safe seats for political gain highlights the sheer rottenness of our current political system in Britain. From Sefton to South Camberwell lie years of voter disenfranchisement, poor turnouts and contests that have been won before the election campaign had even begun. Like a drunken alcoholic, first past the post returns every 5 years to remind voters in these seats that they are powerless to make change. Some may argue that safe seats are justified as they reflect the mood of the constituency as a whole. However, there is one major flaw with this argument. The word “safe” doesn’t belong in modern day democracy. Everything in a democratic Britain should be fiercely contested, everyone and everything should always be scrutinised at every opportunity as well as having voter engagement at the heart of everything. Because of safe seats, there has been a surge in political parties parachuting candidates into seats they may have little knowledge of or a lack of understanding of the culture these constituencies boast. This is irrelevant to political parties. They can still win the seat, and that’s all that matters. This vacancy style of politics ultimately threatens the relationship between MP’s and constituents, are local people really expected to trust someone who until recently lived hundreds of miles away?

There has been a long standing myth that first past the post creates stable government this argument is often used by those who want to preserve the status quo, primarily for their benefit. In fairness, 5 out of 7 elections that have occurred in the past 25 years have resulted in a majority government. However, this just highlights one of first past the posts greatest flaw, allowing a party to win a majority of seats in parliament without winning a majority of votes. Majority governments themselves don’t necessarily mean stable government either. How could anyone consider a majority of 12 seats in a parliament made up of 650 seats to be stable? This myth has been busted in recent times as the current UK government has split on the issue of Brexit, which was ultimately due to the fact 65% of conservative MP’s supported Britain remaining in the EU. Research shows that countries that use a proportional voting method have better government and far more effective government policies. This is because a Proportional system will often create minority or coalition governments which mean that politicians have to work together and comprise to make positive change for the benefit of all. Whereas in the UK, politicians still choose to participate in a playground style of politics. Stuck in a world of tribalism and point scoring. Is it any wonder so many people in the UK are disengaged with the politician system? The abolition of first past the post would bring us a step closer to a more progressive type of politics, that focuses on what we have in common rather than what divides us.

Perhaps the strongest case for abolition of first past the post is the fact that general election after general election, decade after decade first past the post has delivered results which do not represent the real political landscape of the UK. An example would be the 1983 General election which saw the SPD/Liberal alliance win 25% of votes but only capturing 23 seats in the House of Commons. This shows the outright ignorance of the voting system and its inability to represent voters. This leads to the question, is there really a point in voting? For many in the UK voting in a general election is like screaming in the Sahara desert. You know you’re doing it, but nobody can hear you. This was certainly the case for 24.3% of voters who opted for the Green Party, liberal democrats or UKIP at the 2015 general election as that loud scream resulted in just 10 seats between the 3 parties.

Our democracy is lost at sea. If we can’t put our values and our principals into our vote and for it to really count, we have no political compass. That’s why we need to abolish the first past the post voting system and replace it with a system that means every vote will count, in every single part of the UK. If Britain’s voting system isn’t reformed, democracy will continue on a downward spiral and eventually mean nothing to many people across the UK. Let’s embrace democracy. Let’s make every vote count. Let’s throw democracy a life raft.


Michael Rennie is an S6 student who had been active in politics since he was 13. He was involved in writing the Youth Manifesto for the 2017 Council elections for his constituency

1 Comment

  1. The article is quite correct. This problem has been noticed at international level for many years, but it is difficult to make headway against forces that are convinced that the “Mother of Parliaments” is still ahead of the world with its peerless standards of democracy.

    You get nowhere by simply pointing out the deficiencies, and there are plenty of vested interests that will always oppose change, for their own ends. Back in the 1990s the Council of Europe (CoE) in Strasbourg issued several reports in the course of implementing decisions of the European Summit of heads of state and government on 8/9 October 1993. Some of these roundly condemned the UK democratic system, which was bracketed together with those of five ex-communist countries as one of the six states with the worst and most primitive democratic systems in Europe. So much for the moral high ground in Westminster.

    Nothing would have changed if it had been left at that, and both Tory and Labour administrations resisted such change to the last minute. The international authorities were, however, over a whisky barrel on the issue. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia they were determined to force the ex-communist countries to adopt the Western – and now global – standards of pluralist democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the UK colonial setup in Scotland in particular was cutting right across diplomatic policy at one of the great turning points in European and world history.

    In short, there was nothing they could do about eastern Europe while taking no action on the Scottish and Welsh situations, among many other aspects of the UK political situation that were now endangering the whole of Europe.

    The CoE kept the threats general with a statement of the escalating series of sanctions that would be imposed on any European state that continued to ignore the global norms of democratic government. Just a few weeks before the UK was due to take over the presidency of the EU, this would have had devastating political and economic consequences, and expulsion from the CoE would have wrecked the UK’s international image for all time.

    Tony Blair and his team had not the slightest intention of implementing home rule for Scotland in particular until their hands were forced. The CoE documents that have been released to date show that the main object was to remove the obstacles to reform in eastern Europe. The relevant UK documents are still being kept in the “very secret” category, and not one word of what happened has been allowed into the UK’s supposedly free press.

    The release of the papers showing the real story of how devolution came about is already overdue by decades. And any talk of abolishing Holyrood and returning to centralised government from Westminster is simply hot air. The Scottish Parliament was restored under Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations and other instruments of international law, and any attempt to abolish it would make it a United Nations issue.

    Voting systems come a bit lower on the order of things than such issues of high diplomacy, but I am afraid that the principle is the same. Nobody will do anything unless their hands are forced, and agitation will have no effect. The Holyrood system is but one step in the direction of true democracy, but at least we in Scotland are heading in the right direction.

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