Satisfaction with democracy is at an all-time low among the British public, according to a report by Cambridge University researchers. This is dire news, but not all that surprising. If recent years have shown anything, it’s how distant our political system feels to many people. It’s no wonder so many felt the impulse to ‘take back control’. With the country polarised like never before, huge numbers have ended up distrusting either the government, parliament or both.
That’s why I’m glad that constitutional reform is being discussed in the leadership and deputy leadership elections. An elected second chamber, devolution, federalism – these are issues we cannot afford to ignore if we want to repair faith in democracy. And while some may say, ‘we never hear about democratic reform on the doorstep’, I say that we’re hearing about it every time a voter says they don’t trust politicians.
But there’s one issue that isn’t discussed so much, which must be a part of this conversation. That’s whether to change the voting system that we use for general elections. Why do I think this is so important?
For one thing, it’s all very well for us MPs to call for a radical shake-up of British politics, but this may ring hollow if what we actually mean is a shake up of everything except the way we’re elected and held to account. The House of Commons sits right at the centre of the UK’s power structures. To exclude electoral reform from a national conversation about our democracy would look strange and, frankly, a bit suspect.
Besides, there are real grievances with the first-past-the-post system that need to be addressed. Our electoral system meant that 14.5 million votes went to losing candidates in 2019, effectively having no impact on election results. This isn’t unusual for the UK but would be considered a travesty in many modern democracies – and it goes a long way to explaining why so many people feel that they have little or no stake in our politics.
As we saw in the general election, the risk of ‘wasting your vote’ puts huge pressure on people to vote for a candidate who can win, rather than who they really believe in. 35% of voters said that they planned to vote tactically, which puts a third of the electorate through the dispiriting experience of voting for something that they don’t really believe in.
Linked to this is the obsession all parties have about marginal seats. In countries across Europe that use proportional representation systems, votes count equally wherever they are cast. A voter in Lapland has the same say over Finnish politics as a voter in Helsinki. But in the UK, marginal seats are paramount. This leads us to pour activists and resources into the relatively small number of seats which we think may change hands, while paying much less attention to the majority of constituencies where the outcome is pretty certain.
The point about so-called ‘safe seats’ isn’t that they never change hands. It’s that can end up being taken for granted and deprioritised in our campaigning, year after year. The voters hear from us less often than they should – and can eventually conclude that we’ve stopped listening to them. It’s this complacency that sows the seeds of disasters like the loss of Scotland in 2015 or the fall of the “red wall” last year. It all starts with a system that forces us to act as if some votes are more important than others.
If we are going to rebuild trust in our democracy, we need to keep the positives that exist in our current system. As we have this debate, I’ll be arguing that the constituency link between an MP and their local voters is vital. We can hardly rebuild trust in politics by getting rid of locally accountable representatives. This is why serious discussion about electoral reform quickly leads to systems that keep this link, such as those used in Holyrood and Stormont.
But there’s another reason Labour should be looking at the voting system: first-past-the-post has repeatedly enabled right-wing government on a minority of the vote. Most people voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in December. In fact, as Make Votes Matter have pointed out, most people did so in 19 of the last 20 general elections. Yet by the end of their current term, the Tories will have been in power for two-thirds of this time.
Political scientists have highlighted a right-wing bias in countries that use first-past-the-post across the world, as well as a resulting tendency for these societies to slide towards inequality in comparison to countries with proportional representation.
As faith in democracy has fallen around the globe, countries like Norway and Denmark bucked the trend and posted record satisfaction with theirs. It may be no coincidence that they also use proportional representation, governing by consensus rather than confrontation, and have become some of the most socialist societies in the world today. As we consider how to reshape our democracy, this would be a good place to start.
There’s a strong consensus forming around holding a constitutional convention. Led by a representative assembly of citizens, this would bring together ideas for radical democratic reform, hear evidence from experts and other countries’ experiences, and decide how to reshape our democracy for the 21st century. As Labour’s deputy leader, I will ensure that electoral reform is part of this conversation.