Our ‘democracy’ is stacked in favour of certain voters

The average seat hasn’t changed hands since the 1960s


How democratic is Britain? On the face of it, pretty democratic. We tick all the boxes: fair elections, a free press, free speech and assembly, the right to petition and more. But look a little deeper, and there are massive political inequalities that mean the UK is far from as democratic as it could be.

Most of us instinctively know this – that some people have far more of a say than others. And of course, nowhere is perfect. But the cracks in our democracy need dealing with soon if we are not to become democratic in name only, according to a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on our ‘Divided Democracy’.

Unfair odds

The cracks are clear to see. In 2010, it took over 33,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 35,000 for a Conservative and nearly 120,000 to elect a Lib Dem. UKIP got nearly a million votes and no MPs, while the Greens got over a quarter of a million and just one representative. In the process, millions of voters were written off by the disproportionality of the voting system. The fact that some votes are worth much more than others should raise alarms bells.

Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘safe seats’ – constituencies where the same party has been elected for decades, with little chance of them being challenged. In the 2010 General election, the Electoral Reform Society were able to call the winners in nearly 400 of Britain’s safe seats. Out of a list of 382 MPs we got two wrong. This election we’ve predicted a similar number of seats. Sadly, it looks like we’ll be mostly right again.

The average seat hasn’t changed hands since the 1960s, while some haven’t switched party since the reign of Queen Victoria. Holding a seat this long means parties build up major incumbency factors, and other parties give up on fighting for them.

The result of this is that parties focus on the small number of marginal seats – while the rest of us are ignored. It’s a postcode lottery – and like most lotteries, most people end up losing.

There are other ways our democracy is stacked in favour of some voters more than others. Between 2001 and 2010, just 224 donations from 60 sources made up nearly 40 per cent of the three main parties’ donation income. This raises inevitable suspicions about donors buying influence. Three-quarters think big donors have too much influence, and 61 per cent believe the whole party funding system is corrupt and should be changed.

These problems are reflected in people’s attitudes to our democracy. According to IPPR’s research, just one in four people from ‘DE’ (traditionally working-class) backgrounds think our democracy serves their interests well, half the figure for more middle-class AB individuals. Participation in democracy is still greatly weighted by class and age, something which can only damage the policy agenda.

At the same time, formal participation in politics has collapsed (perhaps with the notable exception of Scotland). Just one per cent of the population now belong to political parties, a quarter of the figure 50 years ago, while turnout among the young in particular has plummeted – a trend that is set to continue. And when certain groups don’t vote, it’s likely that they’ll be ignored by policy-makers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. These political inequalities are unusual by European standards – most advanced democracies have far higher levels of participation in politics among the young and a far smaller voting gap between demographics.

Where do we go from here?

Improving our democracy and levelling the playing field therefore requires modernising the way we do things. So, some solutions.

In this multi-party era, we need a fair electoral system where everyone’s votes count equally. We need a say over who votes on our laws – instead of leaving much of it to unelected Lords. And we need a cleaner party funding system, so people aren’t put off by the suspicion that donors are buying influence.

All of these are just a start, of course. Democracy can and should go much deeper. In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, we need to have a UK-wide conversation about where power should lie. And for democracy to flourish, that conversation must be led by citizens. A ‘Constitutional Convention’ of citizens discussing the future of our democracy would be a great way to lay out a clear path for reform.

The IPPR’s next report will set out their own response to the problem of political inequality. But we all have to start taking the problems with our democracy seriously. We need to see real reform of our system in order to meet the promise which democracy makes to its citizens.

Josiah Mortimer is communications assistant at the Electoral Reform Society. Follow him on Twitter

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45 Responses to “Our ‘democracy’ is stacked in favour of certain voters”

  1. Gary Scott

    People often forget that we had a referendum on proportional representation. The LibDems didn’t persuade the public.

    Now, with the possibility of EVEL and how that would translate across to the Lords, we have a crisis. England COULD have dedicated representatives dealing with England specific legislation. This would leave both the Commons and Lords to deal with those matters reserved to Westminster. The risk of doing this, for the government, is that you could find an English Chamber produced very different political make up than for Westminster!!

    However, keeping the power for England in the Commons gives disproportionately LESS power in Westminster to parties depending on votes outside England, like, for example, the Labour Party.

    So rather than being about parity or fairness its about power – again. English MPs retaining powers that none of the rest of the UK have means retaining power for the Tories…

  2. ForeignRedTory

    You are conflating Democracy and Liberalism.
    Does the largest minority get the first and the last word or not

    Political inequality has nothing to do with Democracy – that is merely a been in the bonnet of liberalism. Democracy does not require liberal values, and indeed it is better than there should be no toleration of liberal values.

    Having said all that, PR is a good idea,and long overdue.

  3. ForeignRedTory

    EVEL, just like devolution, is treason towards the principle of Centralism, and should not be tolerated at all.
    The Conxervative Party is stooping towards the same mentality as Sin Fein and the SNP – curses be upon them.

  4. Chris Oakley

    We did not have a referendum on proportional representation. We had one on STV because the complexity of that approach gave the Tories and Labour more opportunity to bamboozle the public into retaining FPTP, which favours the Tories and the Labour party. Our system is hopelessly undemocratic and calculated to maintain a two party state.

    If we look at Scotland, under PR the majority vote would go to the left be it Labour or SNP but the Tories would be better represented than they are now. In England the Greens and Ukip would have more seats than they do now, The government would almost certainly be a coalition but one based on the genuine beliefs of the electorate rather than tactical voting.

    PR is fairer and encourages people to vote based on their principles. The impact on the increasingly despised two party system we have at present should not be an obstacle to more inclusive politics.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    What? Plenty of democracies have checks and balances against the tyrrany of both the majority and the minority. The UK lacks many of them, and PR is one of the important ones – if done right (i.e. MMP) then it even helps both ways.

    Find me a democracy where there’s actual voter choice where liberal values don’t exist!
    (One great example of “democracy” without liberal values and thus voter choice is Russia)

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    AV is not PR. Please do some basic research.

    Also, we should have federalism and not EVIL.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    “Treason”. You’re ignorant of the basic constitutional setup of this country!

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Eh? What was on offer was AV, which isn’t proportional.

    STV *is* proportional, it’s just one of the worst commonly used forms of it. Also, did you just say Labour is leftist? Wut?

    The reality of PR is that we’d see the existing coalitions (“parties”) shattered, and new ones arise – well, the Tories might be able to hang together in some form, but Labour would be replaced as Syrzia replaced the old party of the “left” which discredited itself utterly among the left.

    Anyway! PR is a good idea, and I support specifically MMP.

  9. ForeignRedTory

    ‘What? Plenty of democracies have checks and balances against the tyrrany of both the majority and the minority.

    Many democracies have the Euro as their coinage.
    That does not make having the Euro a prerequisite of Democracy.

    ‘Find me a democracy where there’s actual voter choice where liberal values don’t exist!’
    India, Indonesia. Notice that India and Indonesia recently had dramatic shifts in political polarity.

    ‘One great example of “democracy” without liberal values and thus voter choice is Russia

    Take away the scare-quotes, and for once you might make sense.
    Liberal values mean that the individual has the right to withold his absolute and unconditional obedience to the People.

    That is NOT the Rule of the People,ergo that is NOT Democracy. Liberals do not accept the Divine Right of Majorities,and that is exactly why Democracy needs to be purged from liberal influebces. Ditto for any other objection to the absolute power of the Group over the Individual,. of the Whole over the Part.

  10. ForeignRedTory

    That is quite possible,since I was born abroad,and did not have a reason to be overly interested in British politics until I was about 40. It;s not quite relevant when you live in another country with its own issues.

    Nonetheless, Constitutions can be altered through the Will of the People, just like any other Law or Regulation.

    But no hiding behind Statute can ever be deemed a valid excuse for a sub-part of the Group, be it a Faction or an Individual, to fail to subordinate itself unreservedly to the Primacy of the Group.

    Ben Gurion was absolutely RIGHT in utterly crushing the opposition in the Altalena Affair.. I have been wondering about for years, but the trouble caused by Riek Machaar in South Sudan resolved the matter for me. The Cog that refuses to turn with the Whole Machine cannot be tolerated.

  11. Duncan_McFarlane

    Democracy is political equality. Socialism is economic equality. Unless you have at least a basic minimum of either one, you won’t have the other either. When there’s massive economic inequality the richest and the big firms and banks buy up influence over all the main parties’ policies. When there are no political, legal or civil rights you can be executed without trial, so no amount of economic equality will make up for the lack of political and legal equality.

  12. Duncan_McFarlane

    And how on earth do you believe that the largest minority over-riding the views of everyone else is anything like proper democracy. Democracy means everyone gets an equal say – including in deciding policy – not an elected dictatorship voted in by a narrow majority or the largest minority imposing its views on everyone else. (and that’s before we even get into governments frequently doing things that most of the people who voted for them oppose, or which weren’t even in their manifesto and they held no referendum on)

  13. Duncan_McFarlane

    In India women are frequently raped and murdered and the police do nothing. In India lower caste people are frequently murdered by higher caste people – and the police do nothing. There are sectarian massacres of minorities like Muslims by the Hindu majority. There is massive inequality, massive corruption and many votes are bought. If that qualifies as much of a democracy for you, you have a very strange definition of democracy.

    In Russia political jailings and murders are commonplace, corruption is fire and gay people, Muslims and other minorities are frequently attacked or killed by fascist gangs. The media is mostly government propaganda with significant censorship, intimidation and closing down of outlets that criticise Putin and his party.

    Journalists who criticise Putin or his policies are often murdered (e.g Anna Politkovskaya) , as are politicians who become rivals to or critics of Putin (e.g Boris Nemtsov). Their murders are then claimed to have been by Islamic extremists. People who stand against him in elections find themselves on corruption charges and jailed for decades. Putin is the former head of the FSB (post-Soviet KGB).

  14. Duncan_McFarlane

    and who elected you King of the world and let you decide that individuals have no right to opinions different from the majority’s, or largest minority’s? That’s not a democratic principle. It’s not even a conservative view. It’s a fascist one.

  15. Duncan_McFarlane

    Ah right, you’re an Israeli then? That explains the extreme nationalist theories that have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy – they’re its opposite. There are some actual democrats in Israel, but unfortunately a small minority.

    Seeing people as cogs in machines that must be crushed if they refuse to obey = fascism or stalinism, not democracy.

  16. ForeignRedTory

    You make a silly argument.
    RIGHTS are concessions from the group to component parts.
    Rigjhts do not exist in vacuum, and have no autogenesis.
    Perhaps you think that there is such a thing as a Natural Right?There ain;t no such animal.

    Kindly explain why any form of indiviidual independence should be tolerated at all.

  17. ForeignRedTory

    There are sectarian massacres of minorities like Muslims by the Hindu majority.’

    Do you question the right of the Majority to determine the one and only Religion in a country?

    Perhaps you question the right of the Majority to punish drug-use, ban drink-driving,enforce speedlimits, raise taxation,enact conscription, enact community standards etc etc as well?

    ‘In India women are frequently raped and murdered and the police do
    nothing. In India lower caste people are frequently murdered by higher
    caste people – and the police do nothing.’

    So,that has not changed since Congress ran things. Obviously, it has nothing to do with the matter at hand. Red herring.

    ‘minorities like ‘

    As the Jacobins understood full well, the Nation is Indivisible. To ACT as a minority, to fail to be 100% committed to LOCKSTEP has consequences. A wise minority – and Asia has many, and so does Poland I noticed – treats Loyalty as a comptetive and obligatory sport.

  18. Leon Wolfeson

    Ah, so you’d purge me for being a Jew, for instance, as you praise Russia. Very capitalist of you.

  19. Leon Wolfeson

    Yea, your small minority…hmm…oh yes, the minority is the far right religious, in fact, per the polling. You’re standing with them.

  20. Guest

    So you’re not aware of how the constitution is changed, Russian. Right.

    And of course you can’t allow the Jews to live, same old, same old. Using Ben Gurion as an excuse, even, as you demand your mass deaths.

  21. Guest

    Yea, keep pumping out the capitalist propaganda, Russian.
    No wonder you hate and fear free markets!

  22. Cole

    So massacring minorities is just fine with you, as is ‘purging’ liberals (does that mean killing them?). I think you need to go back to school and learn about democracy. The basics.

  23. Cole

    What are you on about? You sound like a deranged Stalinist.

  24. ForeignRedTory

    Correction: failure to abide by Majority Rule by minorities, not to mention individuals, is completely, utterly and totally unacceptable.
    Lockstep – Or Else.

    Democracy is the collective Rule of the People over everything – from bankers’ bonuses to the amount of fluoride added to drinking water – every aspect of human interaction.

  25. uglyfatbloke

    Pericles did n’t live in a democracy. He lived in a society where a very small proportion of the population wielded power and the other 80% or more did as they were told.

  26. uglyfatbloke

    The tories do actually have representation roughly in line with their support in Scotland, but the system is not proportional; it has – to quote the legislation – ‘a degree of proportionality’ brought about by the ‘List’ MSPs.
    The De Hondt variant agreed by McConnell and Wallace was chosen because it would protect the interests of both of their parties and – as Jack told us – would prevent the gnats from ever becoming the largest party but not completely rule out the prospect of an outright Labour majority.
    Leon (below) is absolutely right. AV is no better than FPTP and if the glib-dumbs deserve a well-merited kicking (which I’m confident they are just about to get) they deserve it for throwing the prospect of democratic reform away for another 30 years.

  27. uglyfatbloke

    Because not ensuring as much personal independence as possible – without harming others of course- is a moral disgrace?

  28. ForeignRedTory

    Let me get this absolutely straight across: I am utterly opposed to your western, European conception of individual autonomy.

    It is EXACTLY the thing that Democracy should not tolerate at all. Democracy does not require any conception of Individualism at all.

  29. uglyfatbloke

    It’s not especially either Western or European, it’s humanitarian.

  30. Guest

    Yes yes, no minorities allowed in the demokratic New USSR.

  31. Leon Wolfeson

    Well I don’t think we should throw the idea of electoral reform it away, and I don’t think Jack had a good idea about electoral math.

  32. uglyfatbloke

    I think you’re right – I suppose McConnell and Wallace thought it was a good idea at the time.

  33. Denis Mollison

    Because we are all individuals, you, me and everyone else. Democracy derives from two greek words, and means rule by the people.

    Sure, individuals cannot all thrive unless their community and society thrive. But the fundamental democratic aim is that all the individuals in the population should be able to have what they themselves judge to be a good life.

  34. Duncan_McFarlane

    No i don’t think there are natural rights – i think there are rights that are widely agreed by the vast majority of people in pretty much every democracy – and they include freedom of expression and the right to express minority views and have .Try the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a start – you know, the one written as a result of the one party states, dictatorships and Holocaust in World War Two

  35. Duncan_McFarlane

    Aung San Suu Kyi is completely wrong in claiming that Rohingya Muslims are not Burmese – she is pandering to irrational prejudice whipped up by the Burmese military and some religious fundamentalist fanatics among Burmese Buddhist monks. The Rohingya did come in as migrant workers under the British, but many have been there for generations – the British left in 1948.So Aung San Suu Kyi, after showing great bravery in the past, is either being gutless, or else is prejudiced herself, or pandering to the prejudiced minority in her party.

    She’s no better than the BNP fascists in the UK who want to send black people who were born here and whose parents and grandparents were born here ‘back home’. in fact she’s worse, because she knows Rohingya are being massacred and starved.

    And if you think the Rohingya shouldn’t be there because many came from 1826 and arent the same religion as most of the people who were there before them, where would that leave all the Jews in Israel who came as immigrant settlers there from the 19th century to present?

    (and don’t try to use the kingdom of Israel here – modern states are not based on kingdoms and empires from thousands of years ago – if they were Italy would have a claim to rule the whole of western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – including Israel – on the basis that it used to be part of the Roman Empire)

    You seem to think that states with an official religion are normal democracies. They are not – the French and American constitutions uphold freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. The UK technically has Anglicanism as the official religion, but no politician here who talks about religion is going to do anything but put off the vast majority of voters, because the vast majority back freedom of religion and keeping religion separate from politics (and most aren’t religious in any case – church attendance is tiny)

  36. Chris Oakley

    Thanks. You are of course correct and I meant AV. Perhaps I helped to clarify my own point about the bamboozled electorate?

  37. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m not sure thinking came into it.

  38. uglyfatbloke

    Hmmmmm….McConnell and Wallace. You may have a point there.

  39. Leon Wolfeson

    Not really. Where PR was an option in polling, before the AV referendum, it got twice the support AV did.

  40. Chris Oakley

    The Left’s ongoing unpopularity in the UK is partly due to a tendency to be pedantic coupled with the lack of a recognisable sense of humour. The combination is unattractive but I think that we agree that PR is preferable to and more understandable than AV.

  41. Leon Wolfeson

    What nonsense. The problem is FPTP, and no party representing the left, not your PC bigotry!

  42. Yourcommentator

    The most important thing in your post is the demand for a new electoral system that represents our vote in a more equal way. This is urgently needed and I would like to know which political party is promising to bring in proportional representation.

  43. Chris Oakley

    On the plus side, we agree on FPTP. I believe that I have already thanked you for correcting my error.

    I am sure that I shouldn’t ask but I cannot help myself. What is PC bigotry?

  44. Guest

    That you pretend to ask…lol.

  45. Chris Oakley

    No. I think that you will find that I actually asked. No pretence was involved,

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