The 2015 general election was a triumph for the Conservatives. Before the exit polls on 7th May no one foresaw a Tory majority. So how did it happen?
In the weeks since the election there has been much speculation: Did Ed Miliband fail as a leader? Did Tory spending buy the vote? Should UKIP and the LibDems wind up their parties and leave British politics for good?
It’s none of these. It’s simply the failure of our electoral system to deliver democracy. With 36% of those who turned out voting for the Tories they cannot be said to have a mandate to form a majority government. More people nationally voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats than for the Conservatives.
Our “winner takes it all” system means our government has been formed by a party who has a mandate from only 25% of the electorate. It’s not just the Conservatives who have done well from the system. It’s also the Scottish National Party and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland. In fact the DUP have done alarmingly well by getting 8 MPs with only 190,000 votes. They have the same number of representatives in the House of Commons as the Liberal Democrats who had over 12 times as many votes.
UKIP have been the biggest losers of all – by a long shot. The Liberal Democrats have also done extremely badly by this system and the Greens. With just 1.5 million votes the SNP have 56 MPs. By comparison, UKIP with nearly 4 million have one.
So now finally there is something on which the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can agree. Both parties would stand to gain from moving to a different and more proportional voting system. But of course those parties in power are those who have the most to lose by changing the system. The existing system is after all the one that has delivered the power to them.
The First Past the Post system works well for a two-party system. If there are two candidates the one who gets the most votes wins. Simples. This does however not translate into a modern, 21st century multi-party European democracy which is what the UK has become. As an electorate we’re no longer given the 20th century choice of a tug of war between landowners and labourers. It’s far more sophisticated and nuanced than that. Our electoral system hasn’t caught up with the times.
The out-dated electoral system encourages tactical voting. How many times do we not hear people saying that they belong to party A, but will vote for party B instead because they want to keep party C out? We are encouraged to vote as if we were in a two-party system because in many constituencies only a vote for one of the two political giants (Conservatives and Labour) can secure enough votes to get one of those two enough votes to keep out the other. Dividing the left between the Greens, the SNP and Labour for example would in many places deliver a more votes for the Conservatives than for the other parties – even if more people combined voted for those other parties. Conversely, dividing the right between the Conservatives and UKIP could render a win for Labour.
It is common for people to think that there is no point voting. Their vote doesn’t count. This is of course absolutely true in many seats. If there is a safe winner then voting for any other party is pointless. They will not get in.
A fairer voting system could encourage more people to vote because the link between your vote and the resulting government would be more clear and allow people to vote for the party they believe in rather than for you hate because they’re the only ones who can “keep out” the party you despise.
There are enough people who voted UKIP, Green or Liberal Democrat to warrant far more representation than these parties have. Half the voters in Scotland did not vote for the SNP. They do not want independence, yet only three Scottish MPs out of 59 are unionists, compared to nearly half the population who voted for unionist parties.
Could the time be ripe for electoral reform?