In the aftermath of the UK’s 2015 general election, more and more commentary seems to notice the discrepancy between votes cast for each party and the number of parliamentary seats won. (True, this is also a problem in other democracies like the USA, but I’m focusing on the UK.)
For one thing, turnout was 66% and the winning party, the Conservatives, won 36% of the vote. This means for every two voters who voted for the winners, three people did not vote at all. This is rather tragic because non-voters are adversely affected by their policies.
Worse, the proportion of votes given to the Conservative and Labour parties has been in steady decline since the 1950s, but our system hasn’t evolved with the reality of modern, multi-party politics. This is hardly news; they have also been proportionally awarded far more seats than their vote share should allow.
In 2015, things got even more skewed, with the third-largest party by vote share gaining only one seat; a party that ran in only 59 seats gained 56 of them – a share of 50% of the vote across those seats awarded them 95% of those seats, making them the third largest party in parliament despite having no candidates in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland. It’s the most disproportionate electoral outcome yet.
What can be done?
There are a number of other ways of divvying up votes into seats with various advantages and disadvantages. For example, if the Alternative Vote system had been used instead of First Past The Post, it is likely that after the 1997 UK election, the Liberal Democrats would have been the opposition party. (One might argue that when it came to the UK’s involvement in the war in Iraq, they pretty much were the main opposition, although one might argue the details.)
Perhaps compulsory voting is the answer? Sure, there are problems with alphabetically-arranged ballot papers, it’s not universally popular and electoral registration is sometimes tied into other unrelated administrative tasks (or taxes). What’s worse: an election outcome that doesn’t represent the wishes of the electorate, or forcing people to vote for a party that they don’t really agree with? If the electoral register was used solely for elections and not to make life difficult for those who still declined to vote, and if ‘none of the above‘ were an option, would that work?
Despite its problems, democracy really is the least worst form of deciding who governs (no matter the strange reasons people vote the way they do). But it needs to be fixed, not ignored or done away with. Maybe voters could vote for policies instead of parties? Perhaps; but would this simply lead to tyranny by the masses? It was progressive politicians who started the slow process of bringing equality to the country, in the face of bitter, socially-conservative opposition (and yes, you can find social conservatism on the ‘left wing’ of politics too).
Whatever one’s feeling about the outcome of an election, it’s always important to bear in mind three things:
First, as Harold Macmillan might not have said, events can blow governments off-course.
Following on from that, as Zhou Enlai might not have said, it’s too early to say what the impact will be.
And whatever happens: this, too, shall pass.