In the late hours of May 7th, Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrat party, epitomised the initial shock of the exit poll by publically promising to eat his hat if the poll proved true. Well, eat your heart out, Paddy. Thanks to First Past the Post, 37% of the electorate’s vote and 24% of the nation’s registered voter’s support really can win a majority government in Britain.
It is a time of self-reflection to many of those who consider themselves left wing: were we merely naïve to the extent of Conservative popularity? While the outcome of the result would imply so, analysis of the vote share reflects a very different representation of what the British public voted for on May 7th. What the result of the 2015 election showed was what YouGov have called “the least proportional result in UK electoral history”, and a damning illustration of the supposedly democratic, First Past the Post electoral system.
The 2015 General Election was from the outset forecasted to be the most unique election in modern times. We began see symptoms of frustration at Britain’s ‘two horse race’ in 2010 with the surge in Lib Dem popularity and the first Coalition government since World War Two. However 2015 marked the dawn of multi-party politics in Britain, with 24.8% of the population (an increase of 11.9% since 2010) voting for minority parties. Despite the 2.8 million who admitted to still ‘tactically’ voting, these results show an increasing unwillingness to be bullied into voting for the “lesser of two evils” as a result of First Past the Post.
For those who, like a worrying amount of our population, are not exactly sure what First Past the Post voting entails, let us clarify. Quite simply, the country is divided into 650 parliamentary constituencies whereby 326 are needed to constitute a majority single party government. Every constituency, divided by arbitrary geographical and demographic sizes elects one MP to represent them in parliament. As the terms First Past the Post implies, the MP candidate with the highest amount of votes per constituency wins, thus the winner takes it all. Nationwide those who voted for candidates who were not elected, which in the latest election counted for 15 million votes (74%) remained entirely unrepresented in parliament. This election saw an MP win on the lowest vote share in electoral history – 24.5% in South Belfast meaning over three quarters of South Belfast votes were brutally ‘wasted votes’.
Yet as Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion argues, “A vote you believe in can never be a wasted vote”. And it appears that the electorate listened. Lucas increased her vote share in Brighton by 11% to 40.2%, whilst across the country the Green Party came a close second in Bristol West, Manchester Gorton, Liverpool Riverside and Sheffield Central, as well as coming third in seventeen other constituencies. Had we had Proportional Representation in this election, this would have translated into 24 Green MPs.
But despite the most successful result in the history of the Green Party of England and Wales which saw the Green vote increase by more than four times to 1,156,149 votes, the Green Party remain with only one MP, Caroline Lucas who called the outcome “a travesty”.
And it wasn’t just the Green Party who were left scratching their heads…
- The Conservatives won an overall majority on a minority of the vote.
- Labour saw their vote share increase while their number of seats collapsed.
- The SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote share, but 95% of Scottish seats.
- The Lib Dems lost nearly all of their seats, despite winning 8% of the votes.
- UKIP won 4 million votes and only one seat. The Conservatives won three times as many votes and 330 more seats. Therefore in comparison, the Conservatives needed only 34,000 votes per seat.
Those against electoral reform argue that first past the post is ‘safer’ than proportional representation, as it allows mainstream dominant parties to maintain the status quo keeping marginal more radical parties, namely UKIP out of government. With a 12.6% vote share UKIP would have gained an alarming 83 UKIP MPs. The temptation is of course to take any measure possible to prevent this becoming reality. However instead of attempting to white wash (no pun intended) these figures, we have to address the reasons why people have voted for UKIP. Amongst other factors, a lack of representation, and a feeling of utter alienation has lead almost a fifth of the British public to resort to extreme right wing parties. As voting trends have proven over the last five years, the longer we continue to tolerate a voting system whereby the voters are not accurately represented, the more we will see political apathy, or worse, extremism.
More importantly we need to acknowledge the extreme right within mainstream parties. Only hours into the five year term of our Conservative government, we witnessed the slashing of disability benefits by £2.24 billion. That sounds a lot more radical than safe to me. Furthermore this begs the question, how safe are we from extreme right wing policies under First Past the Post?
Due to our archaic and well established political structures, the PR campaign will be an uphill struggle in Parliament, as Natalie Bennett comments “Trying to get mainstream parties to vote for Proportional Representation will be like trying to get turkeys to vote for Christmas”. Yet it is not impossible. Across the majority of Western democracies, including 21/28 EU countries including Sweden, Norway, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands, Proportional Representation generates positive and progressive politics. PR voting systems provide more accurate representation of parties, better representation for political and racial minorities, fewer wasted votes, higher levels of voter turnout, better representation of women, greater likelihood of majority rule, and little opportunity for gerrymandering. Therefore it is vital for the public to campaign for a change that validates, and empowers our rights as citizens.
If we are to call ourselves a truly democratic nation, we have to establish a system that reflects the political beliefs of the people, warts and all. We cannot pride ourselves on absolute enfranchisement, only if you vote for particular parties. We deserve more. If mainstream parties continue to ignore the need for proportional representation, the electorate can and will topple the two party system by continuing to vote not merely as a means of deviant protest, but to vote for what they believe in.