What do Nigeria, Malaysia, Bhutan and Azerbaijan have in common with the United Kingdom? A tough question, but if I add the United States to that list, you’re more likely to divine the answer; these are all countries that use the “First Past the Post” (FPTP) voting system to elect their legislatures.
If you study the list of countries still using this format you’ll notice that, save for Poland’s upper house, there’s a complete absence of EU member states on there. Electoral reform is, sadly, not high on the political agenda for either of the two main parties in the UK, but why should it be? After all, given a choice of two, after a while one would vote for the alternative simply out of desire for a perceived change, which is why Keir Starmer apparently holds “a longstanding view against proportional representation”.
Proportional representation, or PR, elects the legislature based on the share of votes each party receives; under this system, there is no such thing as a “wasted vote”, where the incumbent holds such a large share that a vote against them is generally wasted.
The recent Mid Bedfordshire by-election saw the Tories lose the seat they’d held for 92 years.
More locally, the constituency of Maldon is in the top 10 of “safe” Tory seats. If, however, at the last election the votes cast for all the other parties contesting the seat had been amalgamated and cast for a single opposition candidate, John Whittingale wouldn’t be representing the constituents he allegedly called “reprobate oiks”.
In Mid Beds, while Labour squeaked through, conflicting messages between them and the LibDems made it hard to choose a winner for those voters who simply wanted to back the strongest opposition candidate – an approach called ‘tactical voting’. The appetite for tactical voting among the proportion of the electorate who feel disenfranchised appears to be growing. At the last general election in 2019, according to polling carried out afterwards by the Electoral Reform Society, almost a third of voters (32%) said they had voted tactically, up from around one in five two years earlier.
In 2019 the Brexit party decided not to contest any seat that the Tories had won two years earlier, in their attempts to boost the pro-Brexit vote. At the same time, hoping to achieve the opposite result, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru made an agreement that only one of them would stand in 60 seats in England and Wales, in their frustrated attempts to get a “People’s Vote” on the EU issue.
However, such formal alliances are rare, so in the main, each of the major parties will contest seats, even if the unlucky candidates know that that they stand as much chance of being elected as the irrepressible Lord Buckethead. Our antiquated system means that their votes become meaningless the second the electing officer announces the winner. So, while the rest of Europe benefits from a system where every vote has equal weight, we are condemned to a plebiscite not far progressed from the days of the rotten boroughs.
Perhaps, given the arcana of Black Rod, the passing of our laws in Norman French and the spectacle of a disinterested monarch arriving at Parliament in a golden coach, this is what we deserve; because as a country, we appear to be doing very little to change it.
Things, however, may be about to change. The perceived power in tactical voting is behind the formation of the South Devon Primary, an organisation set up by three people fed up with the inequalities of an electoral system that can allow an MP to be elected with as little as 30% of the vote. It aims to run Q&A sessions, similar in format to the American Primaries, where the public can hear the arguments put forth by the representatives of the parties in opposition to the current incumbent, and then decide which one will gain their support in the election due to be held within the next 12 months. This is, of course, not a binding commitment, but if voters do coalesce around a single candidate, the concept of a “safe seat” would be abolished.
Certainly, the incumbent Conservative MP of Totnes, Anthony Mangnall, isn’t happy at the prospect of such organised attempts to unseat him. He said in response:
It is disappointing to see a group of people attempting to restrict democracy across South Devon by denying residents a wide field of candidates.
The irony of a campaign which is attempting to restore democracy by tackling the obvious failings of FPTP is not lost on this writer, at any rate. Mangnall’s seat may, if the Primary system proves effective, not be the only safe one to fall; members of another constituency, Godalming and Ash in Surrey, are taking a leaf from what is happening in the south west. The MP in their sights: Jeremy Hunt.
Time is short
There is, depending on when one thinks the next election will be, between six and twelve months for such campaigns to be set up around the UK. Hopefully, in the interests of real democracy, these can be established in time.
However, the almost inevitable election of Sir Keir does not currently guarantee a reform to the voting laws. So when he achieves power, constituents gaining a Labour MP could consider writing a letter to them if they want their vote in the future to always count. Otherwise, they might as well, in a safe seat, vote for Lord Buckethead…
I was lucky enough to be able to interview one of the founders of the South Devon Primary, Anthea Simmons. The full transcript is in this companion piece: “Making Every Vote Count“.