The imbalance of power

In the UK the luckiest fifth of voters have more than 33 times more power than the unluckiest 20%. This is a far more uneven distribution than household income.

Our guest writer is Stephen Whitehead, project manager, democracy and participation at the new economics foundation

I suspect that by now we are all familiar with the corrosive effects of first past the post on our politics. Watching the tawdry wash up negotiations, it is hard to forget. Seeing government and opposition whips haggling over issues as important as the digital economy bill or electoral reform is another reminder that our system guarantees a monopoly on power to two parties who between them receive the support of only two fifths of those eligible to vote.

Less visible, but no less damaging, are the effects on individual voters. Our system produces chronic disenfranchisement. In the last election, the majority of voters backed candidates who did not win. Their votes were discarded.

Equally, voters in the safest seats whose votes contribute to huge, meaningless majorities are having no real effect on the outcome of the election. In fact in the 60 per cent of seats which are extremely unlikely to change hands this year, it is a wonder people bother to go out and vote at all.

To demonstrate the unequal distribution of electoral power under our current system, the new economics foundation (nef) has devised the Voter Power Index. The index calculates the value of a vote in a given constituency based on the number of voters and the chance of the seat changing hands.

The Voter Power Index has two startling findings. Firstly, it shows the staggering inefficiency of our system in translating votes into outcomes. Thanks to the vast number of votes that are effectively wasted, almost three quarters of voting power is squandered.

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, the index highlights the chronic injustice of our system. In the UK the luckiest fifth of voters have more than 33 times more power than the unluckiest fifth. This is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK. Even before the redistribution through taxes and benefits the richest 20 per cent of households “only” earn 15 times as much as the poorest.

These stark results highlight what is becoming increasingly clear: Britain needs a new electoral system which is fit for the needs of our new plural politics. In the last general election, parties other than the big two received almost a third of the vote: a record figure. In last year’s European elections – where the proportional system meant votes for smaller parties were more likely to be counted – that figure rose to well over half. Our electoral system, which would be distorting enough in a two-party system, fails completely in our new multi-party world.

However, if there is one thing that is illustrated by the farce of the alternative vote referendum that never was, it is that it cannot be left up to those who are the prime beneficiaries of the current system to pose the question about a new one. That is why we need a citizen’s convention to look at all the options for a new voting system and produce a recommendation that can be taken to the public.

The Voter Power Index demonstrates that our current system is broken beyond repair. It is time to let the public decide what we replace it with.

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