“A fair society starts with a fair election”
– Billy Bragg
So tomorrow we will go and cast our votes to try and pick a government. The Election has come at last.
Except there’s not one single election where we all pick our favourite to be the leader. Instead there are really 650 separate elections for local representatives. If your vote doesn’t end up backing the winner in your area, it looks a lot like a wasted vote**.
If you live in a safe Labour or Tory seat you’re effectively unable to vote: no matter what you do, the party you support won’t win in your area unless you’re very good at persuading 10,000 people to vote the same way you do. So how do you get heard if you’ve got a minority viewpoint?
Like most people, I’ve had real trouble making up my mind who to vote for this time.
This is basically because there seems to be very little difference between the parties on most of the important issues: everyone wants to get the national debt under control while protecting hospitals, schools and police, and trying to cut greenhouse emissions. In a way that’s a good thing: consensus on these really important issues means we ought to be able to take the decisions we need to take, even in a hung parliament.
On the other hand, there are lots of small issues where only one party really represents my views. In my particular case, that’s the Greens, but you may be different. This is a reflection of modern societies really – the big questions about healthcare and the budget are more-or-less matters of small policy tinkering that most people agree with, while other concerns are raised by NGOs and smaller parties (what you might call ‘single-issue’ parties).
In France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Spain – all rich, perfectly functioning, healthy modern democracies about the same size as the UK – they have a system of elections that allows for larger parties to govern based on a common consensus, while ensuring minority rules are also represented: proportional representation (PR), where MPs are elected according to the exact number of votes cast for their party. Every vote really does count.
For the first time in over 80 years we have the chance to reform our electoral system and finally make it truly democratic. Here the parties actually are different. The Tories oppose PR because they think that we (the plebs) can’t be trusted to elect a capable government if we’re allowed to vote directly, and because they worry that Britain is somehow a weaker or more indecisive country than Germany, France or Japan. This is, in a word, bollocks – the British people aren’t idiots, and last-time I checked, patriotism entailed pride in your country, not fear that it might fuck up where others have had no problems. Labour only dimly support PR, because they stand to lose a lot of power as the current setup massively favours them (in 2005 they won a double-digit majority with around 1/3 of the votes cast).
Only the Liberals support PR completely, and have pledged to hold a referendum to introduce it. Yes, this is because they have the most to gain of the 3 main parties, and yes, some of their policies I disagree with, and yes, a vote for them might in some cases be a vote for the Tories BUT we need to reform this rotten, outdated system (nearly 200 years old) and we may not get another chance in our lifetime.
To those who say that we need a Tory majority to deal with the economic crisis, here’s what I think: All the parties want to cut the deficit. The measures they’re all taking are basically the same in that they don’t go far enough. And most importantly, the best way to avoid a repeat of the mistakes that lead to that crisis (and others to come), ultimately, is to have a better-functioning democracy that represents us.
So. I live in Hythe, which is a Tory seat. Tomorrow I’ll be voting Lib Dem because the more votes and seats they get, the more likely it is that we’ll get a PR, a voting system where our votes actually count directly. And then in future I can vote Green, or UKIP, or whoever I damn well want, safe in the knowledge that this time, my vote really will count.
**The maths behind this is simple but pretty unsettling. Imagine there are only 10 constituencies (areas), of 10 voters each, and only two parties. Party A win 4 of the constituencies outright, with all 10 votes in each. In the remaining 6 constituencies, they come second with 4/10 votes. Party B, who win those 6 constituencies with 6/10 votes in each, have won a total of six of the available ten seats, and win the election. BUT only 36 people voted for them (6 votes in each of 6 constituencies) out of 100, compared with 64 votes cast (10 in each of 4 constituencies, plus 4 in each of 6 constituencies) for Party A. If this seems like an oversimplification, well, the results of the 2005 election pretty much exactly match these ratios.