Global Discourse
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Betrayed by the system: how the UK’s inadequate democratic system thwarts grown-up politics, and how we can begin to change this

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  • 1 Compass, UK and was a candidate for the Green Party in the 2019 European elections
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It is a few days after the 2019 UK general election and, following a result that gives the Conservatives a large majority in the House of Commons, recriminations are flying everywhere among those who had hoped for a different outcome. The big reckoning appears to have begun and if the early signs are right, no one on the progressive side of politics will be safe from blame for some time to come.

Understandably, the so-called ‘landslide’ loss for their side saddled many on the left and centre-left with emotions of grief, anger and frustration. Emotions which are gratefully received and amplified by media outlets and social media platforms, resulting in an ugly free-for-all where vindication trumps compassion every time and where the generosity needed to build a better political alternative has gone missing in action.

What is easily overlooked in this initial storm is that all of this has been triggered by an overall shift of roughly two per cent of voters from progressive (mostly pro-European) parties to conservative (generally pro-Brexit) parties, leaving the former still with a narrow majority of the overall vote share. In other words, under a different – fairer – electoral system, the 2019 election result would have been reported as a minor reshuffle within the opposing blocs, and nothing like a landslide.

None of this is to say that the movement of voters, especially within certain social groups and communities, from one side of the spectrum to the other, should be ignored. Progressives are only one shift of the magnitude of 2019 away from losing the majority of the vote share to conservatives. They will clearly want to engage with people in communities where their vote share is decreasing. But the picture painted by the seat distribution, a picture that in these first days is headlining all the analysis and reaction, is democracy through a warped prism. Our first-past-the-post voting system means that we accept this as the reality – with all its ironic and tragic consequences.

Let’s briefly touch on the irony first, before delving into the tragedy. Roughly 52 per cent of voters across the UK voted for parties that stood on a platform of opposing a hard Brexit, but the system gave a large majority to one party that wants to push through a hard Brexit, to get it done, so to say, which is now likely to happen. Meanwhile, in Scotland, roughly 52 per cent of voters supported parties that oppose Scottish independence, but the system gave nearly all Scottish seats to one party – the Scottish National Party (SNP) – that wants Scotland to become independent, and now finds itself bolstered to press ahead with a further referendum on this – and doubly so because of the UK government’s commitment to exiting the EU on minimal terms.

Just pause for a minute to take in this baffling Shakespearian scenario that, courtesy of our system, is now about to be imposed on one of the world’s oldest democracies. While the nations of the world are facing a climate emergency that demands a concerted global effort to change the ways in which we do almost everything, inside the next decade, we are about to use that very decade to break up two unions, with all of the disruption and discord that will entail – while our latest nationwide democratic exercise hints that voters, by narrow majorities, would currently prefer to keep both the EU and the UK united.

The tragedy is that it cannot be stopped. The tragedy is that overall vote shares count for nothing in our electoral system. And the greatest tragedy of all is that all of us are going to be affected by the likely chaos that lies ahead. It will present us with a monumental challenge when it comes to how we behave towards each other. One that requires us, eventually, to recognise that to a great degree, there is far more that unites us than divides us, and that what divides us is often magnified by our democratic system, which cultivates a politics of winners and losers.

Our democratic system is itself a cause for tribal, adversarial behaviours. Nothing illustrates this better than our first-past-the-post voting system, which profoundly affects how we do politics in this country. Beyond the obvious issues of parties taking voters in safe seats for granted and millions of votes going to waste, the system deeply poisons relations between politicians and activists of different parties, to no benefit for the electorate. This has become all the more evident in recent decades, as the two-party political reality has come under pressure from new entrants, who have been able to enthuse large voter bases, only to be denied by the system. For example, in 2010 the Liberal Democrats received 23 per cent of the public vote but only 9 per cent of the seats, and in 2015 UKIP surged to a 12.6 per cent vote share – to have its 3.9 million voters represented by a single MP. The one exception to this is the 2015 breakthrough of the SNP, which won all but three of the Scottish seats on just 50 per cent of the vote share.

With its winner-takes-all logic, our voting system rewards whoever is best at uniting the vote of broadly like-minded voters and as such discourages pluralism. Not only does it present to so-called minor parties a sheer impossible mission to gain political representation, it often earns them criticism for ‘splitting the vote’, which is to say, reducing the winning chances of the traditionally largest party of its broad ideological bloc by having the audacity to participate. Serious attempts have been undertaken in the most recent general election campaigns – and indeed many times before – to mitigate against the wretched ‘split vote’, both by those in the progressive bloc and those in the conservative bloc.

In the case of the latter bloc, it has generally been through unilateral action by, first, UKIP and then the Brexit Party, tacitly endorsing the Conservatives for enabling Brexit by not standing candidates in key seats. On the progressive side it has been more complicated, with more parties involved and less enthusiasm among the smaller parties to simply sacrifice their own longer-term prospects by giving Labour a clear run. The purpose of the 2017 Progressive Alliance campaign1 that Compass initiated was to collaborate to avoid vote-splitting in marginal constituencies, in an equitable manner. The alliance helped Labour to a much better-than-expected election result – although not quite a victory – but decimated the Green Party’s vote share, from 3.8 per cent to 1.6 per cent, with no tangible benefits in return. Labour then proceeded to claim all the credit for its decent showing and never once acknowledged sacrifices made by the Greens and others.

In 2019, with the Brexit Party having announced a ‘unilateral pact’ not to contest any Conservative-held seats, pressure was once again on the parties of the pro-European left and centre-left to organise against their united adversaries. While the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru managed to unite their forces in 60 seats,2 the Labour party rejected any invitations to participate in talks and geared up to ‘go it alone’. Having identified the risk of widespread progressive tragedies, several third-party organisations stepped in to advocate and coordinate ‘tactical voting’ – to unite voters behind the progressive candidate most likely to win in each marginal constituency, an all-out effort with the sole aim of mitigating the split vote.

Each and every one of these interventions to condense the vote of the dominant political blocs has serious repercussions on voters and parties alike. To encourage voters to vote for a party or candidate that is not their first choice is an action that erodes democracy and disenfranchises everyone involved. The same is true for persuading candidates to cease their campaign in the interest of boosting the chances of, in effect, one of their rivals. In the heat of the election campaign, outsiders can be tempted to think lightly about the sacrifices involved for what they see as an obviously greater interest – the overall election result and everything after – but those sacrifices are real. There is an element of narrow self-interest involved, of course, but the true cost of electoral pacts and tactical voting is that of giving in to the system – putting proper democracy second.

The territory of electoral pacts and tactical voting is a complex one to navigate. Many have found it tempting to approach it in a purely result-driven fashion, adding up numbers until you arrive at a winning combination – but this is a grave mistake. It denies not only the value of the plural political landscape that has formed and contributed greatly to the evolution of ideas, but also the deep inherent problems of our democratic system – a strategy to circumnavigate the flaws of the system is worthless if it is not also a strategy to address these flaws. Otherwise it is nothing more than a shoddy fix that helps keep the system alive.

Where this complexity is well understood, people and parties have been able to work collaboratively, in a spirit of empathy and reciprocity. Compass has been involved in places including South West Surrey and Richmond Park, where activists have experimented with and succeeded in cross-party collaboration to defy the odds set by the voting system. For example, in 2017 the local memberships of various progressive parties in South West Surrey participated in an ‘open primary’ to select one candidate to jointly campaign for the constituency (Surrey and Hants News, 2017), which helped to dent Jeremy Hunt’s majority. The collaboration continued and in May 2019 it saw progressive parties take control of the district council. The Richmond Park alliance of Lib Dems and Greens not only unseated Zac Goldsmith twice, it also resulted in resounding wins for both parties in the 2018 local elections (van der Stoep, 2018). What these examples demonstrate above all is that forging relationships that are not purely transactional, however difficult at first, has a lasting effect both on electoral performance and on the cultures and behaviours associated with doing politics.

Unfortunately, elsewhere the complexity of electoral pacts and tactical voting is not always as well understood, leading to disagreements and confrontations between people who should, in the grand scheme of things, be on the same side. During the 2019 general election campaign, such hostilities were on full display both on the ground in local campaigns and online. Most frequently the disputes would develop along these lines: supporters of party X would accuse those of parties Y and Z that they were helping the conservative bloc by ‘taking votes from’ party X; supporters of parties Y and Z would lambast supporters of party X over ideological differences – often inflated for the occasion.

And so the system – and the political culture it has bred – triggers a pattern of behaviour where activists give their focus and energy to disputes with other inhabitants of the wider progressive bloc, all of this taking away from what they could be doing to secure a win over the conservative bloc. It is a common human response, of course, to project frustration about something one cannot control onto something smaller and closer, where it does register – even if it does nothing to address the causes of the actual source of frustration and is likely to be counterproductive. But the upshot is that the system lives on, and that it continues to produce adverse outcomes.

The 2019 election result is a particularly adverse outcome for those of us with hopes that the system can be changed for the better. The new government has no incentive to do so and is indeed expected to initiate changes to help prolong its time in office – possibly through even further eroding our democratic system. At the time of writing, the bruises from the campaign are still fresh and new ones are being inflicted, as disputes within progressive circles rage on publicly. But between the hubris and the debris, the first green shoots of a new hope can be seen. Now that the system has so comprehensively pulled the carpet from underneath everything progressive, more people – including Keir Starmer, the eventual new Labour leader (Mortimer, 2020) – are getting round to the view that, somehow, they need to collaborate to earn a better democratic system.

To be successful, the next chapter of progressive collaboration will have to start from an acknowledgement that we all have things to learn. Everyone will have to understand that past behaviours – our own and those of our potential allies – cannot shape how we treat each other in the present and in the future. This is much easier said than done, of course, because of how profoundly past political decisions are affecting real lives, causing lasting hurt. It is encouraging therefore that some people are already seeking to start a new process of alliance-building, with the next general election likely five years away. They will be able to turn to non-partisan groups, such as Compassion in Politics,3 More United,4 Hope Not Hate,5 Common Weal,6 Make Votes Matter,7 Compass8 and others, to work through the barriers to collaboration – and to identify shared opportunities.

The shared opportunity that would have to be one of the centrepieces of the collaborative project would be that of remaking the democratic system. In the past year, leading democracy campaigners have been promoting a citizens’ convention on UK democracy.9 To make that happen in a meaningful way, cross-party political support is essential. Currently, that support is much more widespread among progressives than among conservatives – and as the election has made progressives acutely aware of the catastrophic consequences our broken system can have, it may be expected that further enthusiasm for reform will emerge on that side. A citizens’ convention offers a viable and credible path to change – especially because it is people-led and strictly non-partisan.

The electoral system is of course only one of many aspects of our democracy that needs an overhaul, although the above has hopefully illustrated just how deep and widespread the negative side effects of first-past-the-post are. That does not take away from the imperative to also review devolution and decentralisation, the House of Lords, participative and deliberative ways of citizen involvement in decision making, a written constitution, what the House of Commons looks like and how it operates, and so on. Each and every of those aspects currently affect how, as a society, we decide who we are and what we do, and where the democratic system is flawed its outcomes are likely to be flawed as well.

We are entering a crucial decade. The unholy tandem of neoliberalism and climate complacency will likely grind to a halt one way or another. The question is what will replace it – and how we will re-shape our society. From our politics we will expect leadership, accountability and compassion. As long as our democratic system is unfit for our times, it will struggle to accommodate the culture and behaviours required for meaningful political leadership. We are capable of being everything we need to be and more, as a collaborative species, but we are much more likely to rise to the occasion when our democratic system works with us, not against us.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • 1 Compass, UK and was a candidate for the Green Party in the 2019 European elections

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