The White Ensign. Possibly a fitting flag for the United Kingdom of England (plus others).
Thursday, October 22nd 2015. The day that Westminster ended, finally, any pretence that the United Kingdom consisted either of “One Nation” or of four nations joined as equals.
Now we live in a state in which one of those nations maintains a right and power over the other three and representatives from those latter nations have fewer rights to speak, to influence and to legislate than their colleagues and, by way of extension, voters from those nations have less control over how their state is run.
A Guide to the Holyrood Election System
The Debating Chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building. Source: Wikipedia
I know that it feels like we’ve just finished a rush of politics and campaigning and that the next step will be a while away but believe me, a year is not a long time and the 2016 Scottish Parliament General Election will be upon us before we know it. The various parties and actors are already starting to formulate their plans and draw their lines and the speculation over what could result from the vote and how those results could be achieved are being debated over the various Internet and social media channels.
In much of this speculation and amongst my conversations with some of my peers I’ve realised that more than 15 years after the first Scottish elections there remains much to be said about our level of knowledge about how our votes are cast and how the seats are calculated. Here, therefore, is a guide to how it all works.
I’ve just listened to a very interesting discussion on The Public Philosopher program on Radio 4 asking just why do we use democracy to decide our politics and is it a fair and equal system?
(Click image for link to program or click: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02h91r3)
Some of the questions raised include:
What does it mean to be a “fair” and “equal” system?
We currently give every voter one vote in an election but some have suggested giving some people more than one (indeed, in some elections such as the Labour Party’s electoral college based leadership elections some people do receive multiple votes each “worth” a different weight). Is this “fair”? Who should decide who gets more and would, say, a merit based exam merely exacerbate class division?
How does this link in to non-proportional voting systems like First Past The Post? Clearly if you are a swing voter in a marginal constiuency your vote has a far greater impact on the final result than a minor party voter in a seat that another party considers “safe”. Is it really a democracy at all when you can win a seat on 30% of votes cast, especially when turnout itself is only around 50%? (For more: https://thecommongreen.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/under-fptp/).
Questions were raised on gender equality within parties. The Scottish Greens have a clear commitment to gender equality and have structural and procedural levers in place to ensure it. Here we could consider that favouring someone over another for gender reasons may not be equal or fair but if it is done to correct an imbalance which cannot otherwise be eliminated then it is clearly has to be. One could spend a maddening amount of time thinking about the distinctions within equality and fairness.
Or does Democracy mean something else entirely? Is it less about how everyone gets to have a voice and more about making your government accountable? The “benevolent dictator” may protect everyone’s rights and make good decisions this year but if he gets replaced or goes bad next year and you can’t get rid of them then is that a stable system?
On the other side, there is a movement at the moment pushing for participatory decision making where the general public all vote on each policy rather than delegating a relatively small group of people to represent them. Does this harness the power of collective decision or does it simply allow majority oppression of the majority and populist policy? Is a fair democracy sometimes about making an unpopular but right and just decision?
All in, a thought provoking discussion and well worth a listen.
There is a gaping flaw in the UK election system which desperately needs addressed. The First Past the Post (FPTP) system through which Westminster politicians are elected is deeply unrepresentative and encourages apathetic MPs.
At first glance, it is a simple and straightforward system. Every citizen gets one vote; each votes for a party within their constituency; whichever party gets the most votes (not a majority, just more than any other) sends one MP to Westminster; the party with the most MPs forms the government.
Underneath this simplicity lurks a flaw in our democracy. FPTP does not fairly represent the opinions of the people. In the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives became the largest party in parliament, winning 47% of the 650 parliamentary seats with only 36.4% of the electoral vote. Labour became the second largest party, with 40% of the seats and just 29% of the vote. While larger parties gained, smaller parties suffered: had the election been run under a representative voting system, the Green parties of the UK would hold five or six seats in Westminster, rather than only one.
The problem gets worse the closer the race becomes. Imagine a constituency election with three roughly equally parties, each receiving roughly 25% of the vote: if one managed to squeeze ahead and win with 26%, they would win the entire seat, and 74% of voters would have an MP who did not share their beliefs. Repeat this across the nation, and it would be possible for a party supported by 25% of the population to have no representatives in parliament.
First Past the Post routinely denies representation for supporters of all but the largest two or three parties.
On the scale of the whole country there is another issue, equally unfair. Either by accident or by design (through gerrymandering) it is possible for some constituencies to have perpetually large majorities for one single party. These are the so-called “Safe Seats.” Since the winner takes all, it becomes pointless for other parties to sincerely contest these seats, and so the quality of opposition eventually drops to the point that the party with the majority can stand almost any candidate and be sure they will win.
This has a corrosive effect on democracy. On average, just 9% of seats change hands during a UK General Election: whomever wins them, wins the election. These “Swing Seats” becomes the only constituencies that matter, and so political parties target their policies to appeal to the voters within them and neglect the rest.
For example, Somerset contains nine of the two hundred seats in the UK most likely to change hands next year. Resources focused there may win more seats, so policy has more impact if made to suit the people living there. Voters in Clydesdale matter little in comparison, and their wants, needs and complaints can be safely ignored.
Even within “Swing Seats,” the threat that the seat and so the nation might be lost to an unwelcome political party causes many people to vote tactically, passing over the smaller parties they prefer to back the least odious party that can win. Little wonder that voter turnout has been declining for decades.
The Scottish Green Party supports a more representative, proportional voting system that allows people to vote for the parties whose policies they prefer without “wasting” their vote. With a proportional vote, the tired old line of “Vote for Us to Keep Out Them,” becomes redundant, and people are free to vote for the party whose policies they approve.
For now, FPTP ensures voters in “Safe Seats” are ignored and taken for granted, while voters in “Swing Seats” are cynically exploited, often frightened into voting for the big parties. The established parties do as they please, and anyone who supports change is disenfranchised.
First Past the Post delivers governments that serve no one. Under it, we all come second.
This article was first published at the Lanarkshire Green Party website: http://www.lanarkshiregreens.org.uk/content/under-first-past-post-we-all-come-second