On Saturday 22 August, thousands of activists and campaigners came together across the UK – in a socially distanced manner – for Make Votes Matter’s action day to call for change to the UK’s electoral system. Make Votes Matter, a cross-party grassroots campaign, seeks to replace the antiquated first past the post (FPTP) system with proportional representation (PR) for general elections.
In Brighton and Hove, members of the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, and Labour (including Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle) joined forces with non-party affiliated activists to call for change.
The reasons are simple.
FPTP embeds division, toxicity and unfairness at the heart of our politics. It disenfranchises millions of voters, silencing the voices of everyone who votes for a candidate that fails to win, while deliberately creating a two-tier system of MPs: those who have to campaign and fight for every vote and those in safe seats secure in the knowledge they’ll be returned regardless. A small number of marginal seats, meanwhile, become the battleground, eating up spending commitments and pledges, while safe seats fade into the background.
In the UK, the two-party duopoly is baked in by the voting system. Voters become backed into a corner, many feeling forced to vote tactically for a ‘least-worst’ option, for one party just to keep another out, rather than feeling able to vote positively for the party that best represents their views. Not only does this ensure that votes cast don’t represent the true views of the electorate, the system also dictates that the overall number of seats won rarely reflects the votes cast. This results in disproportionate outcomes and false majorities being generated, often providing parties with 100 per cent of power on the back of a minority of votes.
The 2019 General Election exposed these flaws in the starkest way. Called amidst a deluge of toxicity in parliamentary debate and beyond – a culture that shamefully led to multiple MPs choosing to stand down for their own well-being – the election outcome was wholly unrepresentative. Despite a significant majority (56 per cent) voting against them, the Conservative party was rewarded with a landslide 80-seat majority and the opportunity to wreak havoc on UK institutions without effective accountability.
While the Conservatives won a seat for approximately every 38,000 votes they obtained, Labour only achieved roughly one seat for every 50,000 votes. Meanwhile the Lib Dems won a seat for every 330,000 votes, winning one seat fewer than in 2017 despite a 50 per cent increase in vote share; the Green Party returned just a single seat, despite over 860,000 people voting for the party.
Polling, meanwhile, suggested that a quarter of those who cast a vote, around eight million people in total, voted for a party that wasn’t their preferred choice.
None of this can be right. The most fundamental requirement of a democratic system is that it produces a legislature and parliament that is representative of its electorate. On this most basic feature, FPTP does not deliver.
A proportional electoral system ensures that seats match votes and that any government elected represents a majority of votes cast. It empowers and enfranchises voters, allowing them to consider all parties and vote freely for their favoured option in the knowledge that their vote will matter. It minimises the safe-seat phenomenon: all MPs must fight for every vote and all constituencies are treated equally.
Coalition governments, often derided by those who go out to bat for FPTP, are in fact nothing to fear. Encouraging collegiate and collaborative behaviour in our politics, as proportional representation does, should be something to be desired, not feared. Much of the best work in our politics is done when politicians of different backgrounds and beliefs come together, working cross-party to achieve shared goals. Exploring common ground rather than emphasising and exploiting the differences creates trust, confidence and respect in our politics – traits all too sadly lacking in our present systems.
Under FPTP, inequality thrives. Diversity is restricted and trust in the system nose-dives. We often admire progressive countries and politicians – the Scandinavian systems or Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand spring to mind – yet in the current UK voting system these do not have the freedom to flourish.
If we want to see a Britain built on firm, progressive values that can be sustained over time, we must throw off the shackles of FPTP and embrace a proportional voting system, as all other European countries and most advanced democracies have done. It is the single biggest positive transformation we could make in our politics. We must be bold and take the opportunity now.
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