The UK’s problems are bigger than who’s in charge.
It’s fair to say that we as a country are going through a rough patch at the moment, ‘Brexit’, COVID-19 (which is obviously global, but we’re not exactly doing a great job with it), exam results, the list is long and not even worth trying to explore here and now. The bigger point is, there are a lot of things going ‘wrong’, there are a lot of people very unhappy with the state of things and a lot of people looking for a bogeyman to blame. The ‘left’ has (largely) chosen the current Prime Minister et al; while the ‘right’ has (again, largely) chosen the ‘media’ and the ‘elites’, or should that be the ‘media elites’? I am fully aware that both of these are generalisations, but if I had to sum it up, from my position sat pretty firmly on the fence, I’d say those were fair representations.
Both of those things can be considered a problem, and both are not helping the current situation. But neither is itself the disease, they are but symptoms of a broken system. More specifically, our electoral system. I’m going to use this to lay out what I see as the two biggest issues our electoral system faces, and suggest a couple of solutions. One of these you will have heard about, the other probably not, but both would, I believe, drastically improve the quality of the country’s governance and peoples opinion of it.
Minority rule and a lack of true representation.
It is easy, as we Brits do, to to look at the US’s electoral college system — an essentially two player race in which the winners sometimes don’t win (George Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016) for example) — and see the inherent unfairness, and the stupidity of those who defend the system. It is much harder to look at our own First Past the Post (FPtP) system and see the same issues.
But here is what should be a harrowing statistic to people on both sides of the UK political aisle — while the electoral college has handed the win to the ‘loser’ four times since the US’s first election in 1788 — since 1922 (the first election in the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) the party which won a majority of seats in parliament has won a majority of the votes cast, twice. Yes, twice (the coalition government of 2010 notwithstanding, as lets be honest, nobody at all voted for exactly the outcome we got there). In 25 out of those 27 elections, a majority (>50%) of votes cast were not for the party that won. You will not convince me that this is fair. It doesn’t matter which party you support, you should find it outrageous that governments elected with a ‘massive mandate’, whether its Tony Blair in 1997 or Boris Johnson in 2019, were actively voted against by more than half the voting electorate. And this injustice is before we even mention the absolute shafting that smaller parties receive on a regular basis, unless the smaller party is the SNP of course.
You may be pleased that UKIP won only one seat in the 2015 election, but as many people voted for them as voted for the Lib Dems and the SNP *combined*. I am very much not a supporter of Nigel Farage, but “stopping the ‘bad guys’ getting seats” is not a valid argument for a voting system in a supposedly representative democracy.
You may be pleased that the SNP is a somewhat powerful force in Westminster owing to its current 48 seats. But those 48 seats were won with only 3.9% of the vote. Meanwhile the Lib Dems won 11.6% of the vote and got only 11 seats.
The biggest issue I see with the current parliamentary makeup is that the Conservative government has a majority large enough that it can disregard the thoughts of up to 79 of its own MP’s, but was elected by only 43.6% of the electorate. This might not seem too bad of a percentage, afterall, Tony Blair won a much bigger majority in 1997 with a smaller percentage of the vote (43.2%) afterall. But look at it this way — the next three largest parties in 2019, Labour (32.2%), SNP (3.9%) and the Lib Dems (11.6%) — parties whose policies can broadly be considered ‘left of centre’ (given the UK’s overton window), were voted for by a combined 47.6% of the electorate, throw in the 2.7% of votes for the Greens (again, left of UK centre) and we have ourselves an actual majority (50.3%) of votes for ‘the left’. This is obviously not a perfect breakdown of what would have happened if there were only one ‘right’ and one ‘left’ party, but it should give you pause for thought.
You may think that by this logic, with the Conservatives being usually the only major player in ‘right’ wing politics, that in a purely two party, left — right system, the ‘right’ would never win a majority and that would be unfair. But we only have to go back to 2015 to see that the combined vote percentages of the Conservatives (36.8%), UKIP (12.6%) and the DUP (0.6%) — all ‘right’ of the UK’s overton window — would come to 50%, throw in the Ulster Unionists (0.4%) and, would you look at that, we have a ‘right’ of centre vote-share majority.
I am not advocating for a more two party system, I am advocating for a more representative system, whether that’s achieved through a system which encourages coalition building, or a system which can simulate multiple elections with a single ballot making peoples second and third choices actually matter, it almost doesn’t matter to this discussion, what matters is that the current system leaves large swathes, arguably often a majority, of the UK electorate essentially ignored, which leads to all sorts of issues, regardless of who’s actually in charge.
If you’re interested in different possible voting systems and a better explanation of the problems with FPtP, take a look at the videos in this playlist https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLkLBH5Kzphe0Qu8mCW1Leef2xSxPK1FIe.
The other massive issue I see with our current political system is the idea of ‘career politicians’. Not in a ‘vote them out’ ‘drain the swamp’ kind of way, but purely from the point of view that the incentives for our politicians, left and right, are all mixed up. Being an MP or the PM should be a term of service, not a lifestyle or a career. The kind of person that wants to spend 20+ years as an MP is not the kind of person we should want representing us. MP’s should be subject to term limits. A limit of two elections or 10 years as an MP would entirely change the incentives for both prospective and current MPs. Boris Johnson’s 80 seat majority would be a lot less exploitable if 80+ of his MP’s were in their second and final term, and so had no concerns about the withdrawal of the whip — “well we can’t stand again anyway so what does it matter if we defy the whip and vote for what we think is right?”. The governing party would actually have to build a consensus among its MP’s, rather than just whipping in to submission. You wouldn’t be putting your career at risk by raising your head above the parapet to speak against something you disagreed with.
Term limits could also have the effect of making MPs more accountable to their constituents, people would be able to vote for the person they thought would best represent them, instead of the party. If the MP voted against their constituents interests, then the people who would have a problem with it would be the constituents, whom the MP would have to return to and live among whether voted or timed out of office. When there is little to no fear about being re-selected by the local party, the same would apply to opposition MPs as to government MPs fearing the whip — “I can speak up and vote with my conscience, in the best interests of my constituents and the country, rather than my party”.
From a technical rules point of view, I would also support the idea of term limits for Prime Ministers. While it tends to be less of a problem than with MPs, as most PMs step down after a period of time, or if they lose an election are forced out by the party, the fact that a PM could technically rule for 50 years (as some MP’s have) assuming their party kept winning elections and they kept wanting the job, is simply a chilling idea, especially with the current abismal level of representation our electoral system provides.
This is not an exhaustive account of the issues with our democracy, nor the current socio-political situation, but I think addressing these two issues would make an enormous difference to the quality of governance in the country as well as people’s overall satisfaction with the system.
I have tried to be as non-partisan as possible in the positions articulated here, as I genuinely think that these are issues which affect everyone, regardless of political affiliation. We live in a supposedly representative democracy, and yet the system as it stands leads to neither a parliamentary makeup which represents the electorate, nor representatives who are incentivised to actually represent the people who elected them.
Just because the system works in your favour at the moment, there will be a time when it doesn’t, because there already has been, and this should be enough for everyone to want the system to change. It needs to change.