So part 2 of my writing about leaving the UK will be about the democratic process and politics. This plays a fundamental role in society in general, and the consequences are significant both culturally and personally. And because it’s important, it’s one of things that can wind me up. As I leave the UK, and I’m no longer affected by the ebb and flow of political whims that I have some personal investment in, the importance and relevance of it all fades, and I can be more pragmatic about it all.
When I was young and impressionable, about 20 years ago, I felt it was very important to vote. There are many places around the world where democracy is not alive and well, and I felt that every citizen had a duty to take part in the process to elect a government. In fact I felt that it should be mandatory, with the caveat that there should also be an abstention option so that people who didn’t want to vote for someone specific could have that decision recorded formally. Spoiled ballot papers make no sense as a method for abstention since they are not counted as such – no one knows if a spoiled ballot was spoilt through mistake or intent, and it just doesn’t count.
Over the years my views have changed as it has become clear to me that the democratic process used by the UK is fundamentally flawed. Forcing people to vote is pointless when the results the system produces are not representative of people’s views. One of the issues is that it’s not just one problem that needs fixing, there are several, and no government will ever fix them because fixing them will make it harder for any one government to get an absolute majority, even though that is actually a good thing, despite what governments would have us believe.
So here in a nutshell is what I find frustrating about the UK democratic system, and these I leave behind since I now feel no self-imposed pressure to ‘do the right thing’.
Election of Individual MPs
How many people does it take to elect an MP? No this isn’t a joke, it’s a serious question. The answer is quite simple. One more vote than any other candidate. Say there are 3 parties contesting an election in a constituency with 100,000 voters. With one vote left to count, it’s a somewhat improbable three-way tie – Candidates A, B and C each have 33,333 votes. That last vote is really the only one that counts, that last vote decides who represents 100,000 people. The fact that 66% of the constituency, the majority, expressed a preference for it not to be whoever gets elected, elected they shall be.
This is the problem with the ‘first past the post’ simple majority system – it produces results which cannot be said to accurately reflect the preferences of the electorate. The result for this constituency is that they will be represented in government by someone who only can only be said to be representing the views of a minority of the people. There are simple ways this system can be improved, and yet whenever anyone suggests it, the changes are branded (by people not in favour) as unfair or too complicated, as happened with the recent referendum on the Alternative Vote.
Just to be clear on the, the Conservatives use a form of AV to elect their leader, and yet their party policy was to vote against AV on the basis that “it’s not fair”. So unfair in fact, that the Conservative government used AV to elect the new Police and Crime Commissioners. So it’s not fair for MPs, but fine for PCCs. Glad we cleared that up.
And this problem is compounded by the next one.
The Whip System
The Whip system is an abomination unto proper democracy. It cannot be otherwise. The whip system is the system used by political parties to make sure that their MPs vote along party lines, particularly for important policies, regardless of what their constituents might think. Take a step back here, remember that MPs are elected to represent their constituents, not their party. Now remember that an MP might have to represent a constituency where the majority disagrees with his party line on a specific policy, since they can be elected by a minority of voters. This MP is now placed in a difficult decision – vote according to their constituents wishes which is what they are there to do, risking punishment from the party, or vote for the party and ignore their constituents.
Of course, since there is no way for constituents to remove their MP until the next election, and bearing in mind that the MP was likely elected by less than 50% of people anyway, how often do you think an MP will break party ranks to accurately reflect the wishes of the people who didn’t actually vote for them?
The FPTP System for electing the Government
To recap, we now have MPs elected by a minority of their constituents, and who are kept in line by a system which tries to force them to vote along party lines regardless of the wishes of the constituents who they are supposed to be representing.
Added to that is the same ‘First Post The Post’ system used to elect individual MPs being applied to elect the overall Government. Seeing as there are 650 constituencies (at time of writing), you therefore only need 326 of these MPs potentially elected by less than 50% of their constituents to form a government which can pretty much do whatever it likes. This government can (and frequently does) represent less than 50% of the votes cast, and yet can have an absolute majority.
This makes no logical sense. There are better, and more representative systems used effectively elsewhere in the world, and yet the UK is regularly told that alternative systems are somehow ‘unfair’ and don’t work. Rubbish.
The Opposition Style of Government
The business of electing people is now complete. We have a government which probably hasn’t garnered more than 50% of votes across the electorate who voted, but which managed to get enough single MPs elected (a significant proportion of whom probably garnered less than 50% of their constituents votes) to get a majority. So what do the these MPs do now they are elected to represent the people. They fight amongst each other mainly. At least , that’s what it seems like. There is no reason for any party with a majority to work with parties from across the floor unless the vote on a particular policy is likely to be close or there is a risk of dissenters in the party of the majority.
The party in power make decisions, which the parties not in power decry as the worst ever, even if they themselves started that ball rolling in a previous government. Even if an idea is a good one, if it’s suggested by another party it’s almost universally decried as ‘a bad idea’. The bottom line is that because it is so easy for a single party to get a majority (hung parliaments are not that common), pretty much all the opposition can do it hurrumph loudly in their seats and take pot shots at their opposite numbers. The fact is that representation is pointless unless it has some influence, and in the UK system, when a party has a majority, which the system is designed to obtain most of the time, representation by the opposition has no or at best very little influence.
Some of them might sit on cross-parliament committees and various other things, but for all the good they can do when it actually comes to sitting in the chamber and voting, they might as well be the braying donkeys they sound like.
What this means to me?
As a well educated, net contributor to the public purse, I’m completely disenfranchised from UK politics. I now feel voting is next to pointless and makes very little difference. The current electoral system is horribly broken and there is no incentive for politicians to change it. When it comes to government policy, and how my tax contribution is spent, or what I might get back in the way of services, I might as well go tell a tree what I think. Not once have I been canvassed by a potential election candidate as to what I think on anything, in over 15 years over eligibility to vote.
If I’m unfortunate enough to live in a constituency represented by an MP not in the parliamentary majority, then for all intent of purpose that representation is worthless, regardless of who I voted for. Even if they are in the parliamentary majority, the whip system means they cannot reasonably be expected to represent their constituents wishes if that goes against party doctrine in an important vote.
As someone who feels that, on a philosophical level, I should be engaged in the democratic process and that it should mean something, it is difficult to reconcile the reality with the theory. It’s particularly galling when those same self-serving politicians start talking about fixing the wider issue of ‘European democracy’, which they say is ‘broken’. Perhaps they should get their own house in order first?
Anyway, now I no longer live in the UK, I don’t need to worry about the politics and what used to wind me up bothers me less and less as time goes by. My tax no longer gets paid into HMRC coffers, and instead will contribute to the funds on my new country. They can decide how to spend, it and since I’m a guest here I don’t get a vote and thus I have no responsibility. Funnily enough this new country of mine doesn’t use first past the post – it uses one of those systems derided by the UK as ‘unfair’ and ‘too complicated’ but the people here manage OK with it.
Hilariously I could probably get a postal vote for the UK, but I won’t. Firstly because I don’t feel it right that people who don’t live in the UK should be able to vote for who runs the country, and secondly why would I? It didn’t make any difference while I lived there, so why would it now?