Britain’s Democracy Is Broken and In Need of Serious Reform

I have always believed, perhaps naively, that in a democracy, if a system is shown to be manifestly unjust and unfair, then those who have the power to address the problem will respond positively. Action will then follow to address the grievance. Alas, this often is not the case.

Take the case of reforming the “first-past-the-post” electoral system in Britain. The change to some form of proportional representation has been argued about for decades. I remember the Jenkins’ commission, chaired by Roy Jenkins, one of four senior Labour politicians dubbed the “gang of four”, who left the party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In 1988 the SDP merged with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democrats.

The Jenkins’ commission was set up in December 1997 and reported in September 1998. It suggested the alternative vote top-up system. Nothing much happened until the alternative vote referendum in May 2011. Holding the referendum was insisted upon by the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition agreement with the Conservatives. It was rejected by the electorate on a 42% turnout. I believe part of the rejection was a punishment to the Liberal Democrats for entering a coalition with the Tories, and going back on their promise not to raise university tuition fees. Additionally, the campaign was badly organised, described by political scientist Ian McLean as “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate”.

This brings us to the 2015 election, where the unfairness of the present system was so glaringly obvious that even the most blinkered of politicians couldn’t help but see it. Here are the figures:

The Conservative Party won 36.9 % of votes resulting in 331MPs. The Labour Party won 30.4% of votes resulting in 232 MPs. UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6% of votes resulting in 1 MP. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 4.7% of votes resulting in 56 MPs. The Liberal Democrats won 7.9 % of votes resulting in 8 MPs. The Green Party won 3.8% of votes resulting in 1 MP. Total number of MPs in Parliament is 650.

Clearly the above figures show that on a truly representative system UKIP would have 82 MPs, and the Greens 25 MPs. The main parties both benefited from the “first-past-the-post” system, the Conservatives far more than Labour. The Conservatives’ 36.9% of votes gave them 51% of the seats in the House of Commons, while Labour’s 30.4% of votes gave them 36% of seats. But the greatest beneficiary is the Scottish National Party (SNP); for their 4.7% of votes, they got 8.6% of seats in the House of Commons.

Any fair minded person would conclude that an electoral system that produces such a distortion between votes cast and representation in Parliament is broken and in need of serious reform. The response from politicians, or lack of it, is interesting. The Labour and Conservative Parties have put political advantage above that of justice, and fairness, and simply kept quiet. Doesn’t that explain some of the distrust people have of mainstream politicians? The Greens and UKIP have, rightly, shouted foul and are demanding reform.

The SNP, who are the greatest beneficiaries of the present system, are strongly in favour of proportional representation. Here are the words of Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, in the final leaders’ debate before the election:

I believe strongly in proportional representation. I believe there should be a direct relationship between the percentage of votes a party wins and the percentage of seats they win in whatever parliament the election is for.

This, I believe, explains the popularity of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She has put principle above her party’s political advantage. Perhaps here is a lesson for those who would be leaders of the Labour Party.

Fundamental change in society will only happen if ideas that are considered on the periphery by the establishment and vested interests become mainstream. This process is greatly enhanced and speeded up if they are argued and delivered in our parliament. It is no accident that Green ideas and concerns are more prominent and mainstream in Europe where proportional representation is the norm. Germany, for example, has 63 Green MPs out of 630 in the Bundestag, roughly reflecting their percentage share of the vote.

It is high time that all true democrats, regardless of party, unite to demand reform of an electoral system that is unfair, unjust and an affront to democracy.

Adnan Al-Daini (PhD, Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Read other articles by Adnan.