It’s times like these I’m so relieved I don’t follow Scottish football, because British politics gives me more than enough disappointment.
It’s been an incredible election, hasn’t it? I’ve never been so devastated. What’s even more depressing is how the Labour vote had barely crumbled before party mandarins came flying in with their hot takes against whoever was to blame. Those old division lines, only ever superficially healed, once again ripped wide open. Bludgeoning each other with sledgehammers would have been more graceful. All the more shameful because what nobody in the party will want to hear is that is it not about Corbyn, or Brexit, or election strategy, but everything at once.
But then the need to pick out winners and losers is simply common fare within the grossly undemocratic system that is First Past the Post (FPTP). We – or a growing number of us – have known for far too long that the system has to go. While past attempts at reform, like AV, have been too half-hearted to treat the matter with the seriousness it demands, the fault lines of the system have widened after every general election, until we reach the calamitous point we are at now.
Who knew that a system so unremittingly confrontational would make people less forgiving to the viewpoints of others? Centrist or socialist, whoever leads the Labour party next—or indeed the Liberal Democrats—must put electoral reform back on the agenda. If there is to be any hope of salvaging anything in the UK after five more years of Conservative party premiership, that will feel not just emboldened, but unrepentant.
What tactical vote?
The chronic problem with FPTP is that it leaves too much to speculation as to the true motives of the population, while at the same time producing results that are unequivocal. We can never actually know what people are voting for; neither the process nor the outcome reflect reality.
In this vein the vote for the SNP has always been an especially opaque indicator of public sentiment. This time it is probably fair to say that the ‘anti-Conservative’ vote won out over the anti-independence one. And, in any other election, the SNP would be doing itself many favours by taking heed before pinning electoral success too closely to support for independence. Since 2017 it is probably all too aware of this. But compounding the issue now, this time, will be all the tactical voters in Scotland waking up to find not just that the tactical vote simply failed to materialise elsewhere, but that the total and complete opposite has come to pass. Not even most of the pollsters were anticipating such an overwhelming shift. Now the question to ask is: how tactical is tactical, after the tactic has failed? How many converts to independence has the SNP won from this catastrophic election alone, never mind before it?
Indeed, the same logic can and should equally apply to the Conservatives ‘landslide’ victory. At 43% their vote share still comes up short of the Brexit referendum result (3.4m votes)—so much for a resounding embrace. Of course, as also with the SNP, this share hides many other factors. Among them it does not account for the many Labour Leave voters who simply could not countenance voting Tory no matter what. Nor does it consider the so-called ‘moderate’ Europhile Conservatives, like Stephen Hammond, who ran on a platform that could be best summarised as ‘vote for me because I’m not as bonkers as the rest of them’. Or even within Scotland it does not account for the anti-Brexit, but pro-Union voices in Aberdeenshire and the Borders that still held. But all the same from this general score can be deduced a general message: despite all proclamations of a resounding result, the UK remains as divided as ever.
And in a sense FPTP ensures we are always divided, regardless of who wins, that we will always have a result that is good for them but bad for us, and vice versa. There can be no other option in a system that actively discourages cross-party discussion. Theresa May was unwilling to develop a Brexit deal with other parties from the very outset. When Brexit is so clearly an issue that crosses party lines, that shows how ingrained an FPTP ‘bunker mentality’ has become not just at election time but throughout all political discourse in this country. Compromise, consensus and cooperation have become bywords for weak leadership.
Beware of Johnson’s gifts
If the past twelve months have proven anything it’s that any political system that leaves too much to ‘honour’ are nothing short of farcical. We simply cannot leave it to politicians to act according to their word. What actual weight does Johnson give when he extends the olive branch to ‘Remainers’ and ‘Europhiles’ at just precisely the moment he is under no obligation, nor any real beneficial reason, to do so? If we were so confident in what he said, we would probably never have found out that the courts held a dim view of his prorogation. But by this stage ‘checks and balances’ may as well be as objectionable as ‘consensus and cooperation’.
At the core of it, at least to this observer, is the fact that ordinary people are not actually that interested in democratic representation. What they want is their own voice in the debate. Turning towards a more proportionally representative voting system alone will not assuage that desire, but it will be a start at changing the culture. In fact, I cannot see how we can start out on any meaningful change without it. Because if we can’t even bring ourselves to have more voices in the room, how can we ever develop a more sympathetic ear?
See also Claire Mitchell’s analysis of election results in Northern Ireland Crack of light in Northern Ireland
But amidst this dirge, something was rising above. Candidates were genuinely thinking about how to appeal beyond their tribe. Unlikely relationships emerged. Parties stood aside.Claire Mitchell
William Ross says
Thanks for your article. But I don`t really agree about your FPTP thesis.
Consider the following
1. An FPTP system (2010) produced a referendum on AV which was decisively rejected. Do we need a “People`s Vote” on that?
2. In 2016 the people voted on whether we should remain in the EU or leave. Leave won but the result was trashed by the defeated parties. This has been terribly damaging to democracy.
3. In 2017, 85% of voters in an FPTP GE voted for parties pledged to respect the Brexit referendum. But afterwards we found out that many of those MPs had never really meant what they said in their manifestos. There was a determined attempt by the British establishment to defeat or annul the 2016 Vote, all the time whining about the sovereignty of Parliament ( which the same whiners had been dismantling for 40 years)
4. At last, in August 2019 the British people got a real Leave goverment. The Tory party is now an out -and- out Leave party, and it won an 80 seat majority. We are now leaving at last, and Remain lies broken. It may morph into Rejoin, but we shall see.
We have had a lot of democracy lately. In my view, a combination of FPTP and constitutional referenda reflect our approach as a society. We need constitutional responsibility. In the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties the British establishment parties showed utmost irresponsibility. They fundementally changed the nature of our country with no genuine public debate. Tony Blair would have gone much further, forcing us into the disastrous euro.
The last thing I want is to see a British repeat of the weak continental governments whose PR elections simply keep on electing the same stale coalitions. I do not want my government to be caught between the rock of the Lib Dems or the hard place of the Greens. Such coalitions agree policy in chardonnay filled rooms. This is rule by elites.
I am quite happy to elect a direct representative to Parliament and I detect no desire on the part of ordinary people for such a constitutional change as you advocate.
Nicholas Bannister says
The legislation to change the voting system would, presumably, have to be brought forward by the party in power. So why would it want to change the system? Under PR it might not win the next election.
However the only situation where there could be a change is in a coalition government, but even then the leading party in the coalition is unlikely to introduce the necessary legislation because it would, presumably, reckon, it could get a majority under the present system at the next election.