We are told that a major plank of our foreign policy, along with the USA, is to export democracy to the remainder of the peoples of the World that do not enjoy our freedoms. Many non-westerners are sceptical because the UK and USA examples are not as democratic as they are made out to be. In the recent US presidential elections a high turnout of just 64% was hailed as a triumph for democracy. In the UK the last two general elections produced low turnouts of 59/60% and were bemoaned as failures.
Low turnouts are not a sign of a healthy democracy. In the UK every effort to make it easier for people to vote seem to have little effect on increasing voter turnout, while at the same time opening the voting system to abuse and corruption. The bedrock of our democracy is one man – one vote. The danger is that if people believe their vote will not make a difference they will stop voting and any government elected on a turnout of less than 50% will not have any legitimacy, but as the rules are written they will claim they have. That highlights a major problem with our election procedures. At a general election we do not vote a political party in to government. Our system was designed and legislated to elect individual Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. The Law did not recognise political parties and for general elections still does not.
Many voters use to enter the polling station ignorant of their party candidate’s name and ask the polling staff to identify the Labour candidate. The polling staff were not allowed to tell them and if a ballot paper had been issued it could not be taken outside the polling station so that a party teller could advise them. The first concession was introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government when a candidate’s political affiliation was printed on the ballot paper. Candidates could describe themselves as they wished either by reference to their party membership or in the case of independent candidates by reference to their political leaning, such as Independent Labour or True Conservative. That has now been banned and electors can be faced with a ballot paper listing one or more independent candidates with no indication as to their leaning. Only registered parties can have their description on the ballot paper.
It was only with the establishment of devolved government that the law recognised political parties. Proportional representation was designed to ensure that no single party could dominate the devolved governance. The drawbacks of proportional representation as practiced in Ireland were highlighted in Leader’s News 1/5 – April 2008 [How Politics Should Be].
No system is perfect and they share the same problems, especially if voters do not turn out. Even proportional representation can produce distorted results. Every vote should count, but in practice only certain votes are going to bring about a change of government. The Conservatives are focusing on twenty-six key constituencies for the next general election. If they win them, they will be in power. Labour is aware of this and knows they need to persuade 7,000 key voters to stay with them if they are to retain power. It leaves the other thirty million voters feeling they are not going to make a difference, and is there any point in voting.
In the UK, on two occasions, the party with the lower national vote has been invited to form the government because of their majority of MPs in the House of Commons. This is a system fault. In 1951 the Conservatives had 48% of the popular vote [13,724,418] and 321 seats while Labour had 48.7% [13,948,385] and only 295 seats. In the first general election of 1974 Labour had 37.2% of the vote [11,661,488] and 301 seats while the Conservatives had 38.1% of the vote [11,928,677] but only 296 seats. This was clearly unfair and there are other concerns.
In the landslide Labour victory of 1997 – 419 seats – and with 44.4% of the vote [13,551,221] it took 32,342 votes to elect each Labour MP. For the Conservatives with 31.4% of the vote [9,592,555] it took 58,137 voters to elect each Tory MP and the Liberal Democrats with 17.2% [5,243,332] needed 113,985 to elect each LibDem MP.
The other landmark Labour victory in 1945 – 413 seats – was of more historical significance, but the statistics show the same distortions and time has clouded the facts. Labour was part of a coalition which achieved 59.9% of the vote [14,997,529]. This coalition comprised other associate parties such as Communist – 2, Independent Labour – 3, Common Wealth – 1, Irish Nationalist – 2 and the Liberals – 12. Labour by itself gained 393 seats on a 47.86% share of the vote [11,982,874]. The associate’s vote [3,014,655] resulted in only 20 seats [4.8%] although they achieved more than a quarter of the Labour vote.
For the record; the Conservatives led a National Government coalition which included Unionist, Nationalist and Liberal Nationalist parties. In total they managed 39.76% of the vote [9,955,808] with 213 seats. This was made up of 189 Conservatives, 13 Liberal Nationalists, 9 Ulster Unionist and 2 Nationalist.
At general elections we are trying to elect a constituency MP and elect the government with one vote. If we legislated to reverse the purpose of our vote with priority to electing the government it would be at the cost of diminishing the link between a MP and their constituency. It would also reduce their independence and increase the stranglehold of political parties. There are many models of proportional representation that purport to solve the problem but they are complicated and the voters find them to be more confusing. It would be much easier to have two separate votes for the constituency representative and the government. This would also help to facilitate the separation of the Executive and the Legislature.
We also need to consider the falling turnout of voters. In the Great Election of 1945 the turnout was only 76.25%. In 1950 it was 83.61% and in 1951 it was 82.78%. Throughout the remainder of the 50s and the 60s it was in the high 70%s. The 1970 turnout of 72%, the 1983 turnout of 72.7% and the 1987 turnout of 73.21% were the lowest until 2001 and 2005. The other general elections in the 70s, 80s and 90s were also in the high 70%s. What is the reason for the dramatic decline in voter turnout in the third millennium?
It could be that a significant proportion of registered voters do not want to vote for any of the parties on offer. A protest vote of spoiling their ballot paper does not count for anything. Making voting compulsory will not force them to vote for a candidate or party, but will result in more spoiled ballots that do not count. Many commentators have proposed an additional box on the bottom of the ballot paper – NONE OF THE ABOVE – and that would count. If NONE OF THE ABOVE received the most votes nobody would be elected. This proposal seems to appeal to the general public and would make compulsory voting acceptable.
What do you think? All constructive comments will be carefully considered.