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Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

Blog from event with Danish-UK Association and DJOEF: "Are UK politics broken?"

Below is a blog based on the intro that LDER Chair Keith Sharp gave at a February 2023 engagement hosted by the Danish-UK Association and the London branch of the Danish Union of Economists, Lawyers and Social Scientists called DJOEF. As such the remarks are targeted at people who are used to voting in the Danish proportional representation system and are relatively unfamiliar with the UK voting system.

Here's what Keith said:

'Good evening everyone and thank you for inviting me tonight. I'm Keith Sharp and a member of the Make Votes Matter Alliance. I have also served on the Council of the Electoral Reform Society and have a political party affiliation - I am currently Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform.

With those credentials you might expect me to have a short, clear answer to the question! But I'd like to look at why, in this present dangerous world, the functioning and quality of democratic political systems is so important.

Two main reasons:

At the most basic level: the well-being and livelihood of individuals, families, neighbourhoods is at stake. Well-run democracies benefit and respond to the needs of most of the people most of the time. You don't have to look far these days to see how people suffer - oppression, lack of human rights and freedom - under tyranny.

And democracies are struggling. And tyranny is flourishing

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently published its Democracy Index 2022 - an annual publication. Its reporting is recent years - certainly since 2016 - shows a decline in democracies in both absolute and relative terms. It finds only 45% of people live in a democracy; over a third of people in full dictatorships. Even in some countries where the people have a vote, their freedoms are under threat, lessened.

And so to the second reason:

In an increasingly tyrannical world, democracies need to be strong, robust to the outside world; as well as to the people, the voters. It's not enough to say 'we give people the right to vote'. There's a need to review and update constitutional arrangements. Nothing stands still.

The EIU assembles its index according to four criteria:

Electoral process/pluralism

Functioning of government

Political participation and culture

Civil liberties

I won't apply these criteria directly to the UK in the time available this evening- but they serve as a helpful yardstick when judging whether politics are or are not broken. It might be revealing however to assess the impact of the present Government's actions, such as the Elections Act 2022 or the current Public Order Bill, against these EIU criteria. It is frankly hard to see the measures as enhancing them.

Turning to the UK itself, it is of course four countries or jurisdictions - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - and each have to some degree their governance. For example Scottish property law is markedly different from English law. Worth noting too: the 'devolved nations or regions' all use proportional voting systems for their elections.

My focus however in the interests of time is constitution/governance at the UK national level.

The UK has no written constitution - there is extensive case law and precedent but this is not formalised and so is open to challenge and change on a case by case basis. A recent example is the 2019 attempt, overruled by the Supreme Court, to prorogue - close - Parliament for an extended period to suit the then Prime Minister's purposes and agenda.

Like Denmark, the UK's head of state is a hereditary monarch. So: by definition undemocratic.

Unlike Denmark, the UK Parliament consists of two chambers.

The 'upper chamber', the House of Lords, has a huge membership - some 800 'peers', thought to be second only to China's National People's Congress in size! It is entirely undemocratic as its members are appointed by the government of the day, often by an outgoing Prime Minister. Appointments are usually the reward for some sort of service to the ruling party; former MPs, employees, activists and of course donors. The Lords used to be entirely hereditary and a few of these still remain; various reform attempts especially since the 1990's have met with at best partial success.

The Lords has an advisory scrutineer role - reviewing draft legislation in some depth and voting on changes and amendments. It's fair to say much of this scrutiny is in-depth and thorough, especially as the Commons often has limited time to do this itself. But Lords amendments are easily ignored when they return to the Commons. The Elections Act had many clauses amended by the Lords but they were quickly over turned by MPs in the Commons. Currently, the Public Order Bill is returning to the Commons after several Lords amendments. How many will survive and reach the statute book remains to be seen. I'm not placing bets on them…

The House of Commons - the 'lower house' - is where the power lies. It contains both the leiglsature and the executive, No separation of powers here, as the executive - the government ministers and indeed opposition spokespersons - is drawn from the legislature. Does this compromise the legislator independence of career-minded politicians?

There have to be General Elections every five years, but there are no fixed terms. The Prime Minister can call an election whenever she or he wishes. A popular sport among UK media and others is guessing when the next election will be called.

A UK General Election consists of 650 separate elections. These individual constituency elections are aggregated to decide which party has most constituency MPs and has therefore won the election. There is no national or regional linkage of the results (unlike Denmark and most other countries).

In these 650 elections, no matter how many contenders, the candidate with the single most votes wins. Even if that's less than half the votes cast, that person is still the winner. You can see constituencies where the 'winner' got as little as 40% or even less of votes cast.

This system is widely known as first past the post (FPTP).

The justification for a system which does not require 'winners' to have majority support? It's quick, clear and easy to understand (which infers the stupidity of the average voter). It ensures, we are told, strong and stable and decisive government, due invariably to a single party winning a majority of constituencies.

The most obvious criticism to be made is that the winning party - the democratically elected government - never has the majority support of the electorate.

In 2019, Boris Johnson's Conservatives won a thumping majority of seats - 56% - but did so on a clear minority of popular support; just 43% of voters voted Conservative. And under the UK's unwritten constitution, with a lack of 'checks and balances' or any accountability until the next General Election, that equates to pretty much 100% power.

And it's been this way ever since at least World War II. No party, from 1945 onwards, has commanded half the votes cast at a General Election.

The real damage is done, however, to the individual voter. This is because votes are unequal and often don't count at all towards the election result.

Let's look at unequal votes, distorting representation. In 2019, 865,000 people voted for the Green Party. They returned one MP. Yet, at the other extreme, the Scottish National Party got an MP elected for every 25,000 votes cast! For the Conservatives, that number was 30,000. Fo

Most votes don't count at all. Constituency majority sizes don't affect the overall result - winning by one vote is the same as winning by 20,000 votes. In 2019, 70% of votes were cast for either losing candidates or piled up meaningless surplus majorities. So: only 30% of votes affected the election result.

The British public senses this inequality, this denial of a true democratic result. You can anecdotally hear how people feel their voices aren't heard, they have little or no say in decisions that affect their lives; they feel cut off and that politicians are not to be trusted.

The data backs up this emotional response: in 2019 only 25% of voters polled felt their vote could lead to a change of winning party where they lived. This is the phenomenon of 'safe seats' - where there is no chance of change. Voters in those constituencies are pretty much ignored in party campaigns as all the effort focuses on likely swing voters in a few marginal constituencies.

Still in 2019: the BBC reported that 61% of voters asked were dissatisfied with the way the UK political system works. Perhaps even more disturbing: 32% of voters said they were going to vote 'tactically' - which means not voting for your preferred candidate at all, because the voting system forces you into to vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating the candidate you most dislike. That is a flagrant denial of voter choice.

It is so easy to stop this rot; to assure all people's votes count equally; to assure people their voices will be heard not suppressed; and to build some trust in UK politics and its politicians.

To say UK politics is broken sounds despairing. But if it is, it is simple to take the first essential step to repairing it - change the voting system to one which delivers peoples' views; and which values true voter choice over a dysfunctional system that prioritises the parties not the people. People first!'

Data sources: the Electoral Reform Society and BBC website.