More than anything right now we need to prevent the Tories negotiating our EU exit, and make sure every vote counts in future elections. A progressive alliance is the only way to deliver that
The great Brexit referendum indicated only one thing, and it definitely wasn’t that a well informed population overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU based on a considered examination of the evidence, the risks and opportunities, or on the opinion of experts. No, the only thing the referendum result really told us was that a large proportion of the public feel their vote doesn’t count – or at least that it doesn’t count in a normal general election.
The turnout in this referendum was 72.2%, higher than any general election since 1992, almost a quarter of a century ago. Clearly, with a nationwide yes/no vote, which didn’t respect arbitrary constituency or national boundaries, many people felt their vote actually counted this time and made the effort on a miserable day to get to the polling station and have their say.
On the flip side, we’ve seen substantial ‘regrexit‘ following the result – people who voted leave as a protest vote, because they didn’t think it would count and are now regretting it. These are people who have turned out to vote in the past, but it never seems to go their way, so voting is devalued in their mind.
Both of these problems are caused because we have a First Past The Post electoral system for our general elections in the UK, which only 45 of 237 other countries use. This system means that in each constituency, the winner takes all, and that winner then heads off to parliament. The majority of MPs from a single party can then form a government, which seems to have almost complete control. The 2015 election was the most disproportionate in history, and the Electoral Reform Society produced an in-depth report into the problems with the system.
When you think about it, it’s clear to see why people feel their vote is wasted. With a winner takes all system, all votes for other parties count for nothing. Although that’s bad news for those who voted for the losers, it’s great for those who backed the winner, right? Well, not really. Once a candidate has more votes than anyone else, they win. It doesn’t matter if the winning candidate got a majority of 10,000 or 1, they still won, and those extra votes don’t count towards the national picture. These wasted votes accounted for 74.4% of all votes cast in the 2015 general election. It’s no surprise people feel their vote doesn’t count, when statistically three quarters of the time it really doesn’t.
So what’s the alternative? Proportional Representation is an electoral system where all votes count towards the national result. There are many different varieties of PR, and some alternatives that aren’t exactly proportional, but are pretty close.
One argument against PR is that it is not as likely to produce majority governments. However, coalitions work in other countries. Politicians have to work together, instead of brazenly steamrolling through policies. People like to see this, because they are sick and tired of the playground politics we see in Westminster. If you want to get things done under PR, you need to have an adult debate.
Another problem with PR is that you don’t get to vote for a real person who works hard in your area and will represent your area locally. For this reason, the Green Party advocates Alternative Vote Plus, a system where you vote for a local candidate just like FPTP, but then the number of MPs from each region gets topped up to make the result more proportional. Although this system is easy to understand as the ballot paper doesn’t change, it may mean people don’t realise their vote always counts whoever they vote for. Substantial public education would be required to make them aware.
The problem has been that neither the Conservatives nor Labour want to support PR, as it means they will lose MPs. The two party system works quite well for them. However, what we have seen following Brexit is a major crisis in the establishment, and the potential breakup of both main parties – the Conservatives divided over Europe, and Labour divided over whether it wants to be a right or left wing party, and if left, who will lead it. This means that were there to be a snap general election – which surely is the only way Brexit can be negotiated in a democracy – then both parties are looking quite vulnerable.
The Conservatives however are a very top down, whipped party that sticks together through thick and thin because the leader knows best and divided they would lose. They won the general election, so they aren’t in such a vulnerable position. Labour, on the other hand, is. The ongoing coup is evidence of that. Its voter base is disillusioned and voters are heading to UKIP. And with First Past the Post, we’re not likely to see any other parties taking the lead as the opposition any time soon.
The only way for left wing parties in this country to win, perhaps in the next decade, is to unite. The Green Party has today called on Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru to come together and form a progressive alliance. It’s possible this might also include the SNP. This would solidify the lead in many constituencies and leave the rest of the vote split between The Conservatives and UKIP. A progressive alliance with the combined support of all their party members would be very likely to win a majority in government.
What would that alliance look like, so it works for all parties? The most effective way to do it is only one party standing in each constituency, possibly rebranded under the ‘progressive alliance’, so long held loyalties and grievances would not be demonstrated so clearly in the polling booth.
Then, let’s start as we mean to go on – make it proportional. There are 632 seats in Scotland, England and Wales. Based on the last election, if the progressive alliance won all 632 seats, this is how many each of the potential member parties would have gained:
|Party||2015 votes||Percentage of ‘alliance’ votes||Proportional number of seats|
There will need to be some significant adjustments to this to keep everyone happy and make it realistic. Scotland is entirely held by SNP, so it might be a good idea to let them keep their seats to get them on board, because right now they don’t have much reason to be – FPTP is working well for them, and they want independence anyway. Plaid Cymru deserves a larger presence in Wales, currently they have three seats, and it might make sense to give them another. It’s unlikely that the Greens have enough support to win in 52 constituencies, but they did very well nationwide so it might be a good idea to give them all the seats where they came second – another three seats in addition to Brighton. The same might also be a good move for the Lib Dems. Careful decisions would need to be made about marginal constituencies, and more effort put into those areas. The details would take some time to be hashed out, but starting out by making it proportional would put us on a good footing.
It’s important that this is also sold to members and the general public. Local parties that have been fighting against each other for decades would need to campaign together in order to win. Labour would need to learn some humility and put its large member base to work behind other parties in some constituencies. It’s important to remember the bigger long term picture: this is the only way we can all stop the common enemies – the Conservatives and UKIP – from being in the driving seat of our EU negotiations, and deliver proportional representation, which means the progressive alliance won’t ever be needed again.
This is a vision for parties with roughly compatible ideologies working together to make elections fairer and undertake a truly inclusive EU negotiation (yes, UKIP and Conservatives too). That’s what politics in the 21st century should be about.
Featured Image: Number 10 via Flickr
Vote Leave signs: Bob Harvey via Geograph
House of Commons: UK Parliament via Flickr
Jeremy Corbyn: 70023venus2009 via Flickr