East Sussex is a lovely place to live, but it exemplifies how our so-called democracy fails us, its residents. It is a mostly very comfortable, rural and seaside county. It has no cathedral city and few large towns. It might be called a conservative sort of place, lacking much manufacturing industry and with a ‘mature’ population. Its main towns are also political marginals: Eastbourne and Lewes split between Conservative and Liberal Democrat; Hastings between Tory and Labour. The more rural constituencies, Rother and Wealden, are safe Conservative seats. Its county and district councils are mostly Conservative-controlled.
So if I go on to compare safe Conservative Wealden to, say, Labour Hackney, you may think me deranged. However, there is one factor they have in common, and which in fact applies to every constituency in the land: they contain thousands of unrepresented voters. If you have Labour leanings in Wealden, you will likely have no district councillor, no county councillor, and certainly no MP, representing your point of view. In Hackney, a Conservative voter will be in a similar position. In neither case is this position likely to change, because both are ‘safe’ seats for their incumbents, who need do little to remain in post. In our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, only the winning side gets any benefit from what is called democracy.
Because of this, neither of the two leading national parties is likely to rush to seek any change in the system. Labour will not want to lose its hold on Hackney any more than Tories theirs on Wealden. One might hope that responsible political parties would wish to do what is right for all voters once they have the reins, but this does not appear to be so. Certainly there is little evidence in land-locked Wealden of any interest in, or response to, minority parties from its MP, whose ‘spare’ time (you might think being an MP was a full-time job) is devoted to earning a fat fee for consultancy on maritime matters. At the last general election, 61% of those who voted in Wealden chose Conservative Nus Ghani, but this equates to less than half of the potential electorate and left nearly 24,000 voters in her constituency without a voice.
How should a progressive resident of Lewes or Wealden feel when seeing that votes have been cast in parliament in the name of their constituency to deprive children of food or not to increase welfare payments for constituents? How should those with real concern for the environment react to developers being allowed to ride rough-shod over planning conventions to build unneeded assets in rural communities, whilst an acknowledged dearth of social housing goes unmet? To whom can they have recourse when all of their ‘representatives’ belong to the party making these decisions? Minorities or not, there are Lib Dems, Greens and socialists in every Sussex constituency, yet their supporters rarely even register on the radar of Conservatives. Similarly, there are refugee and asylum advocates, social workers and carers helping people with disabilities, mental health and economic challenges across Sussex, whose views, experience and expertise all deserve respect and recognition but receive little.
This is not democracy. Such minorities should not have to ‘cleanse’ themselves from the place they live in in order to be represented (an idea which has been expressed to me when campaigning). Tories have the right to live in Hackney as much as progressives may wish to enjoy Sussex. Non-Tories in each constituency rightly feel deprived − just ask the Lib Dem, Green and Labour voters of Lewes or Eastbourne, who collectively formed a majority last general election yet had to accept that a Tory MP ‘won’ each seat by a narrow margin. There’s a range of political opinions amongst Sussex’s 1.4 million residents far wider than its 13 Conservative MPs (out of 16) would suggest.
In a democracy every citizen should have the right not only to vote, but also to be represented. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect an MP with a very fixed mindset (especially one in a ‘safe’ seat) to empathise with a voter from across the political divide, but this should not prevent that voter from having someone in parliament who speaks for them, which simply does not happen in First Past the Post races. There are just three European countries still clinging on to winner-takes-all elections, of which the UK is one. For Sussex, as for Hackney and the rest of country, a fair proportional representative voting system seems overdue. The only successful candidate for whom I have ever voted in over 50 years of elections was an MEP, elected on the list system. I am now deprived even of that by our suicidal departure from the EU. Surely it is time that the system that made her available to me − and my vote to her − was applied to all our elections so that everyone in East Sussex, and everywhere else in our proudly democratic country, can have true democracy?
The cross-party alliance Make Votes Matter is a national group campaigning for a fairer voting system and has local branches including in East Sussex. They are holding a pre-Christmas day of action this Saturday 12 December, and anyone interested in grassroots (virtual!) campaigning is invited to get involved.