Anyone who is remotely interested in politics knows that the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system is heavily skewed towards the Tories – on average it requires 30% more votes for Labour and a staggering nine times as many votes for a Liberal Democrat to win a seat than it does for a Tory candidate – and that’s before the new boundary changes have been factored in!
But the scale of the democratic deficit is even greater than most people realise. The voice of huge swathes of voters goes unheard and unrecognised and as a consequence the majority of citizens are governed, at both local and national level, by a party that they did not vote for and which does not represent them. In the run-up to the May local elections, I helped Compass undertake some research into the councils where seats are up for election and the results highlighted the extent to which our current system is fundamentally, and tragically, undemocratic.
Of the 230 councils that are holding elections in May, 85 are Conservative controlled, but in only 21 councils did they accrue more than 50% of the vote. In other words, 75% of Conservative majority-run councils were won with a minority share of the vote. On average, Conservatives won 62% of seats with only 44% of the vote; and there are 10 councils where the Tories hold the majority of seats with less than 40% of the votes (the most extreme being East Hertfordshire where 80% of the seats were won with only 46% of the vote). This is hardly a glowing example of democracy in action and highlights the undemocratic nature of our FPTP system.
This absence of democratic representation is one of many reasons why people are disengaging from the political process – they are frustrated and disillusioned that their voice isn’t heard and that their votes appear to count for nothing. But political disengagement plays into the Tories hands – low voter turnout (especially amongst the younger generation and minority groups) typically favours the Tories. The answer lies in positively engaging to try and change the system once and for all and in demanding that our political leaders start to engage in a more consensual type of politics. And there is evidence that this works! Recent by-elections have demonstrated that collaboration between parties can successfully unseat Tory MPs with substantial majorities and Waverley Borough Council in Surrey is a shining example of what can be achieved with patience and perseverance. In 2015 the Tories held 50 out of 57 seats on the council. However, by 2019 the situation had changed completely – the council is now run by a progressive coalition – and this has come about as a result of steady but persistent pressure being put on all the progressive parties to collaborate.
So what actions can we take to make our system more democratic and representative?
Firstly, we need to make more people aware of the scale of the democratic deficit that exists, how the current system is stacked against meaningful citizen representation and encourage them to lobby their MPs and councillors for change. As long as the FPTP system remains in place our democracy will remain unrepresentative and progressive parties will be permanently disadvantaged.
Secondly, we need to encourage progressive parties to collaborate, at both council and constituency level, especially where a progressive majority is only being prevented by the progressive vote being split. In the May elections, all 64 councils currently controlled by the Tories with a minority vote could potentially be in the hands of a progressive coalition if the Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green parties decided to collaborate!
Thirdly, we need to encourage people to engage in ‘smart’ tactical voting. This means helping voters to understand that at times the pursuit of progressive politics is best served by putting party allegiances to one side. Helping people to understand which party is best placed to unseat the Tories in each council or constituency and encouraging them to vote accordingly is crucial in furthering the cause of progressive politics and ensuring that we are governed by politicians who are truly representative of the majority of voters.
And last, but by no means least, we need to encourage people to get out and vote. People need to understand that, whilst apathy and political disengagement is understandable, if we want an end to Tory mis-rule, the only option is to utilise our vote, and do so wisely!
Our politics, over the past 13 years, has been hijacked to serve the interests of unrepresentative factional groups to the detriment of our current and future economy and society. A democratic reset is urgently needed and it is something we can all contribute to!