It’s a matter of faith among Brexit supporters that failing to obey the consultative referendum on EU membership is an assault on democracy. MPs who actively campaign to stay in the EU are betraying that democracy. Almost every day a Brexiteer or sympathetic news outlet rages against the ‘anti-democratic’ Remain supporters who want a second vote.
Putting the questionable nature of the 2016 vote aside, the UK does indeed have a major democracy problem. It’s called first-past-the-post. Voting rights have expanded significantly in the last hundred years or so, but how the British elect MPs has barely changed.
Voters are bunched into constituencies of roughly equal population, though the numbers vary widely. The Isle of Wight has an electorate of around 110,000. Newcastle upon Tyne Central has about half that, but they both still have just one member of parliament.
Much smaller constituencies, like Wales’ Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Approx. 44,000) enjoy the same representation as Scotland’s Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Approx. 87,000). If Belgium had as many MEPs as the UK, Brexiteers would call bloody murder. At home these discrepancies are all in proper order.
And it’s not just individual constituencies that are under-represented. The British system allows MPs to squeak to victory, In 2017, Labour’s Emma Dent Coad won her Kensington seat by just 20 votes – on a turnout of over 38,000.
Projected nationally, this bizarre system gave the Tories 330 seats in the 2015 election with 36.9 per cent of the vote. That’s a majority of five. Labour increased its vote 1.4 per cent and lost 26 seats. The present Conservative government was endorsed by 42.4 per cent of the people in 2017 and still lost its majority. Their DUP enablers? They won 0.9 per cent.
Compare the UK’s nearest neighbour. Ireland has operated a system of PR:STV since the 1920s. That’s proportional representation with single transferable vote. The Irish constitution requires that there be at least one MP for every 30,000 people. This results in multi-seat constituencies, with a minimum of 3 and a current maximum of 5 MPs. Voters rank their choices, and can vote for just one candidate or as many as they wish. Candidates are elected based on a quota and rounds of elimination for the lowest vote getters until all the seats are filled.
The Irish system is not perfect. Indeed, there are many ways it could be more representative, but it produces results far closer to voters’ preferences than Britain’s first-past-the-post anachronism. Take the most recent Irish general election in 2016. The ruling Fine Gael party won 25.5 per cent and 50 seats. The main opposition, Fianna Fáil, won 24.3 per cent and 44 seats.
Does sound more equitable than a 55 seat gap based on a 2.4 per cent poll difference? That 2017 election that would have been much more devastating for Theresa May if the UK had a more representative system.
Supporters of first-past-the-post used to say that a different way of electing MPs would result in unstable governments and a reliance on coalition. So much for that argument. Some contend that first-past-the-post is fairer because the person who wins the most votes gets the job. But democracy is not a horse race. If 60 per cent of voters in a constituency voted against the Tory candidate, how exactly can he represent them?
Huge numbers of British citizens feel unable to go their MP. They believe their MP doesn’t represent them and in many cases, they’re right. First-past-the-post produces safe seats where politicians need only wear the right rosette. It encourages parties to lock down a core vote – to seek nothing more than a plurality – and ignore everyone else. And it produces governments whose policies have been rejected by the majority of voters.
With such a democratic deficit, is it any wonder the 2016 referendum has become a flashpoint of dissatisfaction? A post-Brexit Britain that continues to keep its electoral system preserved in aspic is primed for civil disintegration. Look at the United States, look at the institutional minority rule that’s so close to being established there.
First-past-the-post needs to go. Yes, it will mean more MPs in some places. Yes, it will mean longer election counts and slightly more complicated ballots. And inevitably, it will mean a political culture built around coalition government. Or things can go as they have been. We already know the results of that.