Pepsi politics has lost its fizz

Under first past the post, British politics has been reduced to a binary marketing skit, like the old Pepsi Challenge: Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi? Red or blue? Which tastes sweeter? Never mind the health of the belching body politic, which has become toothless and bloated, both Labour and the Conservatives want you to stick to your tribe, keep swigging the snake oil, and try to ignore the bitter aftertaste.

I don’t know if you’d noticed, but there’s an election looming… The sixth general election of the 21st century will be conducted according to an un-democratic Victorian system established when Gladstone was prime minister and General Gordon was marching toward disaster in Khartoum.

But what’s the problem with first past the post (FPTP)? The traditional advocacy says it’s familiar and it delivers strong and stable government. Well, alas, our recent experience conclusively refutes that. The number of prime ministers and re-shuffles has increased as our international standing plummets.

OK, but we had a referendum on proportional representation in 2011 and 67.9% said, “No thanks”. Yes, we did have a referendum. But that was a decade ago, before the Chilcott Report on Iraq was published, before Brexit, and before Johnson, Truss and everything else that’s helped to decimate faith in British democracy. As a footnote, the 2011 PR referendum wasn’t even offering a proportional system like the single transferable vote (STV), it proposed a flawed mechanism called the alternative vote (AV) which would have served only to sustain two-party, heads or tails politics – which is probably why David Cameron insisted on it.

Interestingly, the Conservatives use AV to choose their own party leaders. They’ve updated their system three times since 2019 to make it work better for internal Conservative Party elections, but they don’t want you or I to be treated fairly at the ballot box. Why? Simple – it’s not in the Conservative Party’s interest: FPTP helped the Conservatives rule for 65% of the 20th century, and they’d like to continue that trend, thank you very much.

Of course, the Conservatives have been accused frequently of enjoying “one rule for them, and another for everyone else”, but they’re not the only party that uses AV for its leadership elections but opposes electoral reform for everybody else.

The Labour party under Sir Keir Starmer won’t give you fair votes either. In fact, it might be interesting, come the next general election, to ask Mrs Hart and Miss Dollimore, exactly why they think millions of ordinary British people should effectively be disenfranchised by the electoral system they both currently support? Is that democracy?

Sir Keir’s stance is surprising for a traditionally progressive party. It’s even more surprising when you learn that last year, Labour conference overwhelmingly backed a motion to embrace proportional representation and to include it in the next manifesto. The motion stated that FPTP had “catastrophically failed to represent people’s wishes, needs and votes…” Even as a Lib Dem, I couldn’t put it better myself. And don’t hold your breath. There’s very little chance a Labour government will introduce it during their first term. And will there be a second?

Here’s a quick quiz on elections, just for fun. (Caveat: it’s actually not very funny).

1) In 2005, which country elected a majority government on a mere 35.4% of the popular vote? (i.e. 64.6% of voters didn’t support that government);
2) Again in 2005, which country saw the losing party win 72,544 more votes than the winning party?
3) In 2017, which country saw 74.4% of votes wasted?
4) In 1951 and February 1974, in which country was the ‘wrong’ government elected? (according to share of popular vote.)
5) Lastly, an easy question – does this feel like representative democracy?

I suspect you’ve guessed the answer to all the quiz questions. It wasn’t some banana republic, it was Britain. And when you spell it out, isn’t it astonishing? It’s like sitting on the sofa and suddenly looking at that pending DIY project and thinking, “How on earth have I not fixed that yet??!”

To unpack the above, FPTP does not perform that basic democratic function – it does not apportion seats in parliament according to votes cast. It means, invariably, the minority rules over the majority, and so blithely ignores its views, its needs and its concerns. Does that go a little way to explain why we’re all so cheesed off with politics and politicians and feel we don’t really have a voice? When people feel ignored, things go wrong. What better explanation could there be for the impulses behind Brexit? We cannot continue to ignore people.

Under a proportional system like the single transferable vote, if a party wins 20% of the votes cast for instance, it gets 20% of the seats in parliament. It means parliament accurately reflects the needs and desires of the British people. It’s a system used in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Malta, Scotland and Australia for some or all of their elections. Oh, and it was conceived in Britain.

The next election is a watershed ballot. In terms of green policy, the NHS, industrial policy, defence, growth, education, the cost of living, migration, European diplomacy etc etc etc. The choices we make couldn’t be more critical.

Electoral reform will re-calibrate our politics and give us back our voice. It will eliminate marginal seats, safe seats and tactical voting, and could foster long-term strategic planning and promote a pragmatic political consensus that works for the many, not the few. It could rid us of self-defeating polarisation and also stop the sort of partisan buck-passing that’s led over decades to the present debacle over RAAC. The country’s literally falling apart and it’s time to start rebuilding it – and rebuilding faith in democracy.

But I know many people are only focussed on one thing, they just want rid of this Conservative government– even some Conservatives want rid of them. It may feel like the crocodile nearest the boat, but it isn’t. If you want real political change, it’s going to require more than switching direction on the merry-go-round for the next five years.

A vote for Labour isn’t a vote for change, alas. It’s presently a vote for the status quo. It’s a five year reprieve from the hard-right New Conservatives, not a deliverance. Didn’t you see Liz Truss this week auditioning to succeed Sunak? Warming up to cut benefits, abolish the top rate of tax, row back on green commitments and raise the retirement age? An inevitable return to ideological Truss-onomics is what Labour’s denial of electoral reform ultimately means. So Sir Keir is sacrificing your futures for Labour’s political fortunes.

So, vote for whomever you like in 2030. But vote for proportional representation in 2024. Because democracy has your name on it – ‘Demos Kratos’, the power of the people. And it’s time to tell Labour and the Conservatives, you want it back.

Image Credits: Guy Harris .

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    • I agree. I started reading the first paragraph I scrolled down, saw there were several more paragraphs written in the same vein, then quickly nipped off in search of a lighter read elsewhere in our lovely Rye News. If I wanted to access ‘polly tickle’ issues, I would watch the tv news or read a newspaper; neither of which I have done since pre-Covid.

  1. Nice balanced letter. FPTP, a method shared in Europe only by Belarus, has always been pushed as providing strong, clear government.
    The last 13 years has shown that theory to be deeply flawed.
    The U.K. needs to join the democratic world as quickly as possible. The days of the Conservatives and Labour taking it in turns to clear up their predecessors’ mess, are over.

  2. Guy is correct in pointing out that first-past-the-post is an unfair voting system, because most people’s votes count for nothing and it results in governments which hold, for example, only 35%-40% support. STV is a much fairer and more democratic voting system, and it would likely lead to coalition governments, which of course are common on the Continent. There is nothing wrong with sensible government coalitions. The Lib Dems made the mistake of allying themselves too closely with the Tories in the 2010 Coalition and ended up backing certain damaging Tory policies, rather than having a looser agreement which would have enabled them to oppose individual policies.

    The problem right now is that we all have to vote under FPTP and, if people want a change of government next year, they’ll have to consider tactical voting. This means voting for the candidate most likely to remove the incumbent government MP (if that’s what one wishes to do, I’m not expressing support for any candidate). In Hastings & Rye, the Labour Party has the best chance of ousting the sitting MP, being closest in terms of voter support last time round. The Tories on 26,896 gained 4,043 more votes than Labour, with the Lib Dems on only 3,960. The numerical logic is clear for all to see.

    Rather than looking purely to boost their own share of the vote — which will weaken opposition chances of victory under FPTP — the Lib Dems should seek to forge an informal deal with Labour whereby the strongest party in each seat is given a clear run. The best (some say the only) way to beat the Conservatives in the unfair FPTP system is to run a single main opposition candidate against them. This will involve a sacrifice on the part of the less-supported opposition party in each seat.

    Research has shown that the way that constituency boundaries are drawn up in the UK, based on registered voters rather than population numbers, gives the Conservative Party an inbuilt 22-seat advantage over Labour. Recent boundary changes are also predicted to advantage the current governing party to the tune of 5-10 seats.

    I have no problem with Rye News contributors writing political articles, so long as local people are able to respond in the comments section. It’s democracy in action. Politics affects everyone’s lives in the most fundamental ways.

    • Thanks, Thomas.
      I can’t fault your analysis on the numbers, or on the bitter seduction of tactical voting, which forces us to vote for a party we don’t want, to keep out of office a party we want even less. So we’re made complicit in propping up a defunct, un-democratic system. And ‘tactical voting’ tells you everything about what you’re engaged in. It’s not strategic voting; it’s short-termism: it solves the problem for five years, no more. Then we’re back to square one…
      But we can short-circuit the relentless binary engine and we can send a powerful message…

    • Thomas, unfortunately many responses get binned if they do not fit the Editor’s or Moderator’s personal narrative. This is supposed to be a Community publication but it’s tilt is definitely in one direction. Posts can actively disparage the Conservatives. Try complaining about Labour or Liberal representation and see where that gets you.

  3. Replying to Rod Came:
    All main political parties are allowed to contribute on an’ alternating basis. Democracy requires open debate. You can’t object to that surely? There is plenty of other, non political, news elsewhere and I actually found this article quite difficult to spot.

    • Hi there, John. I can’t speak for Labour, but the Lib Dems did nothing more than fight for what they believed in. That’s what we all did, I expect.
      As far as Europe is now concerned, this whole ‘undoing Brexit’ mantra is nonsense. Whether the Lib Dems, Labour, the Greens or anyone else fervently desire to reverse Brexit, it simply isn’t a reality. It can’t be done on a nudge and a wink by Sir Keir Starmer or any other politician. There’s a drawn-out legal process of alignment and accession. And that’s before we try to convince the EU we’re actually a serious prospect for membership. So we can’t turn back the clock, but we can certainly do grown-up diplomacy with our European neighbours for the sake of our farmers, fishermen and businesses in general. And if we want to get a grip on migration, we’ll need to talk to them too, unless we want Rye Bay to look like it did back in WW2, with barbed wire and Home Guardsmen patrolling the beaches.
      So, rest easy on that score, John, and let’s focus on the things we can actually change.
      Hope you’re well, John.

    • People are permitted to change their minds and vote again: that’s what democracy means. All the polling over the last few years consistently shows an increasing majority in favour of rejoining the EU (unsurprising given what a costly disaster the whole Brexit debacle has been). Minds and votes change, political decisions are not preserved in aspic for eternity.

    • Guy’s article is about our electoral system, not about the EU. The evils of first past the post apply across the piste affecting all the policies pursued by government in our name.
      Under Proportional Representation we would have a House of Commons which fairly reflects the views of the electorate. If that House of Commons decided to take a line on Europe different to yours that would be democratic and not something to which you should take exception.
      The political world was not set in aspic in 2016. Circumstances change, views change and the electorate changes. In a democracy we are free to change our minds. That is the difference between democracy and ancestor-worship. We should not wrap ourselves in the child’s comfort blanket of a seven year old marginal vote when there are serious issues to be considered now.
      A couple of points:
      First there never was a vote to leave the Single Market or Customs Union. The vote said nothing about our relationship with the EU after leaving. Leading leavers eg Daniel Hannan, specifically said they were not talking about leaving the SM and the widely canvassed “Norway Solution” involved remaining in the Single Market.
      Second the Lib Dems never tried to “renege” on the referendum result. We wanted the matter put again in the light of changed circumstances, in particular in the light of knowing what agreement our own government had come to with the EU. In the 2019 general election we said that if we secured a majority we would reverse the decision. In that case the electorate would have given a very clear decision to change their minds. You may think what you like about the electoral appeal of that position, but it was entirely democratic.
      Third, if you are to write about “enslavement” you need to explain what you mean and justify your position. For my part I can think of no term further from our former relationship with our neighbours and friends in the EU.

  4. Surely there can be no argument that PR in the EU elections reflected the wishes of voters
    In 2014 the results (for better or worse) were:-
    Brexit/ UKIP 4
    Conservative 3
    Labour 1
    LibDems 1
    Green 1

  5. Excellent article, Guy. Britain is moving ever closer to being a broken democracy. Thank goodness we are still allowed to talk about this openly here on Rye News. As for Thomas’s comment: improving on this Conservative government is a low bar to cross. It’s a broken bar lying on the ground, in fact. I really can’t see how the Tories could win the next election, short of bringing in more legislation to disenfranchise even more voters. I don’t put that past them.
    I don’t want to see a ‘landslide’ (voted in by say 35% of the electorate) Labour victory, otherwise we are just in for more complacency until the Conservatives can have another round of wrecking the economy and dividing society. Tactical voting just perpetrates distorted and flawed politics. Let’s move into the 21st century.

  6. Thanks Guy for your honest reply,of course I was just highlighting the democratic vote of the majority, when questioning the word democracy on your honest assessment of reform ,as for people changing their minds over Brexit at the 2019 elections,unfortunately for the other parties this was never going to happen, love him or hate him Johnson,got us out of Europe, which is why he won the election, with a stonking majority,for the Tories.

  7. I think that the last 3 election results say it all with regard to FPTP.

    2015 – Conservatives (Cameron) 12 seat majority; 36.8% of the vote.

    2017 – Conservatives (May) minority government with 5 seat deficit; 42.3% of the vote

    2019 – Conservatives (Johnson) 80 seat majority; 43.6% of the vote.

    So May lost 17 seats despite increasing the vote by 5.5%; and Johnson picked up 85 seats by winning an additional 1.3% of the vote. Neither getting close to 50%.

    I hope that a proportional vote system is in place in my life-time so that the people can ‘take back control’.


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