As the 2015 General Election draws nearer (just 12 days to go now) there is a lot of uncertainty in just which party could end up in power, or indeed which parties. The polls at the moment are superbly tight, with roughly 0.4% separating Labour and the Tories in the Telegraph’s latest ‘Poll of Polls’. Since the beginning of April, both parties have swapped between first and second five times.
But regardless of what one of these two parties win their ‘private two-party race’, neither of them are going to get a majority in the House of Commons. The reason for this is that the election is no longer a two-party race, it’s not even a three-party race like we saw in 2010. If we look at the recent televised election debates it is quite clear to see that we are now in, effectively, a seven-party race. In Wales, Plaid Cymru are gaining momentum, in Scotland, the SNP are set to whitewash the country, in England, UKIP are on the march, and the Green party are beginning to attract a large amount of the younger, progressive vote across England.
Up and down the country, people are beginning to realise that there are alternatives to the established big parties. Scotland is a prime example of this: Many Scottish voters are disenfranchised with Labour following the referendum and their failure to deliver on promises made during the referendum, the result of this is that many are turning to the SNP, who they see as a centre-left party with Labour values but who will also stand up for Scotland.
This isn’t a problem, though, it’s healthy, it’s people voting for who they want to vote for as opposed to which of the two big leaders they dislike least. It also makes for more accountable governments – look across Europe and you will see coalition governments all over the place. One party in coalition with another tends to be kept in check by their partners and both are kept in check by the electorate, two or more parties having to watch what they say and do makes for a much more accountable system than one party getting to do what it likes.
But the problem we are facing is not the fact that we’ll likely have a hung parliament, the problem is far more mechanical than the race itself. You see, whilst we might have a seven-party race, we are still trying to run it in a two party system. That system is dictated to a very large degree by the voting method used in this country.
In Britain we use a system known as ‘First Past the Post’ where, quite simply, the candidate with the largest number of votes wins. It sounds fairly simple, but it’s quite unfair and out-dated. Back when we had a two party system good-and-proper this was quite useful as there would likely be only two candidates to vote for, the result being that one would always, by necessity, get a majority of the votes cast in that constituency.
Nowadays, however, it’s a little different, even with just three parties, one candidate could secure just 34% of the vote and be elected to parliament – that means that 66% of the electorate did not vote for this candidate and yet they still get the gig. And by introducing more parties it gets even more ridiculous. In fact in the 2005 general election Labour secured a majority of seats (355 to be precise) with only 35.2% of the popular vote. I.e., there was 64.8% of the electorate who voted against Tony Blair’s government, yet his party still secured a majority of seats in the Commons.
This means that smaller parties get utterly sidelined and as a result, their supporters begin to vote for other parties in something known as ‘tactical voting’. The basic idea of tactical voting is that, after you realise that your party either won’t win the seat your in or won’t be in power after the election, you vote for a larger party that has a better chance of keeping the bigger party you don’t like, out of power.
This often looks like Socialist voters or SNP voters switching to Labour to keep the Tories out, or UKIP, DUP, etc., voters switching to Tory to keep the Labour party out. The result of this is a drawn out death for smaller parties and a race to the political middle ground to try and appease as many voters as possible. It makes a complete mockery of democracy as you no longer get to vote for those you like, but, instead, have to vote against those you dislike.
The result of all of this for the coming election is that smaller parties and their supporters are being demonised for “splitting the vote”. Most often this appears to be Labour supporters harassing the likes of Green or SNP voters who are “just giving David Cameron the keys to Number 10”.
And I see two problems with this; firstly they are forgetting that a coalition that holds a majority has just a better mandate to govern than a sole party in a minority, and secondly, they aren’t really addressing the issue at hand.
That issue is voting reform.
There are a large number of different methods of voting that have been proposed by various groups over the years, each of which have their pros and cons. The most tested method in Britain is the Additional Member System (also known as Mixed Member Proportional) which allows voters to vote for candidates in their constituency via a FPTP system. These are then topped up with regional votes, where the voters give their support to a party. The seats for that region, generally allocated via closed list Party PR vote, are divided up based on the proportion of votes each party received.
There are also other methods, such as full Party List PR, Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote to name but a few, all of them with various ups and downs. However, they all beat FPTP in being more representative of the votes cast, allowing people to vote for the parties or candidates they like (as opposed to against the ones they don’t like) and generally hold parties and politicians more accountable by reducing the number of “safe seats”.
If this coming election goes as predicted (i.e., nearly totally unpredictably) and we end up with a large number of SNP, Green, etc. MPs, I should very much hope that it opens the public’s eyes to the dire need for change within our voting system.
Such a change will never have the full support of the Labour or Conservative parties as it undermines their ability to dominate the political landscape with minimum effort. However, a strong vote this May for the smaller, ‘non-establishment’, parties may well count as a vote for electoral change and a fairer political system for us all.
For more on vote counting systems, check out the Electoral Reform Society’s website as well as a rather neat video by CPG Grey explaining the problems with FPTP voting. He’s also got a couple of other videos explaining other systems too!