It’s no longer good enough to offer voters the illusion of choice

Fewer than one in four voters will see any of the policies they voted for implemented over this parliament


This week saw an unlikely gathering form on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and I stood alongside representatives from UKIP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats not for another fiery debate, but united behind one cause. We were handing in a petition signed by over 120,000 people demanding that our voters be heard.

The Green Party won over 1.1 million votes on 7 May, yet just one MP was elected to represent them all. UKIP took more than 4 million votes, but they too find themselves with a single seat. The majority Conservative government now in office won the support of just 24 per cent of the electorate.

So fewer than one in four eligible voters will see any of the policies they support implemented over the next five years.

The figures are baffling, but behind them are people who have had their hopes dashed, and their concerns ignored. This election was unique in opening the floor to parties that wouldn’t usually be granted a fair voice. Every party that handed in that petition today took part in the leaders’ debates, giving them an unprecedented opportunity to challenge parties of government on a national stage.

Every party fought hard to win people over, and millions took the bold decision to vote for something different – for a party they believed in, rather than one they thought was the lesser of two evils.

In return for trying to send a message to the establishment parties that change is needed, those people have been silenced. Represented by MPs whose views they do not share, they are left voiceless. Most concerning, they may have been convinced that change simply isn’t possible – that there really is no point in voting.

Those who voted for change, those who voted for more of the same, and those who weren’t persuaded to vote at all deserve to be heard, because that is what democracy is supposed to be about.

If we want to live in a fair democracy, where all votes are equal and everyone is represented, we need proportional representation.

Under a proportional system, Green voters would have 24 MPs fighting their corner. Those who voted UKIP would have 83 MPs on their side.

I disagree with UKIP on virtually everything, but that does not mean I think their voters should go unrepresented. If we want to kick UKIP out of parliament, we should do it by building strong arguments against their policies, not by using an out-of-date voting system against them.

In the leaders’ debates, Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru, Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP and the Greens’ Natalie Bennett proved that, though we have our differences, there are areas where different parties can work together to achieve common goals. In government, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats proved that coalitions can last – whether we agree with their policies or not.

If this year’s election proved anything, it’s that the three party stitch-up in British politics is over. Voters are no longer satisfied with a system that keeps the powerful in power and prevents new ideas from being heard.

It is no longer good enough to offer people the illusion of choice.

If we are to continue in the spirit of the leaders’ debates, and embrace our new multi-party politics, we need a voting system that is fair. We need a proportional system to create a parliament where every voice is heard.

Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party. Follow her on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

19 Responses to “It’s no longer good enough to offer voters the illusion of choice”

  1. Dan

    Labour should be backing this strongly, make it one of their ‘red lines’.

    Ties in perfectly with a ‘Fairness’ theme and would be a big step in showing the electorate that the tribal politics of New Labour, where justice is sacrificed for narrow party political advantage, are finally dead.

  2. The Socialist Party

    Even with a proportional system, although every vote may count, the electorate’s hopes for real change and an end to deprivation, exploitation and inequality, will never come about while capitalism continues, and governments have no choice but to give priority to the needs of the super-rich asset-owning minority class on top.

  3. stevep

    Hallelujah!, after weeks of searching the various forums within Left Foot Forward and finding barren desert and stony ground, at last someone who actually gets it.

  4. chazwyman

    Tories are not blustering their way through Europe with the British people “at their back”, with no need to consult a coalition. EH? 36% of those that placed a vote? That is NOT the British people. How many found no one worth voting for? This is what they call a mandate.

  5. robertcp

    I agree but there are too many stupid people in the Labour Party.

  6. David Lindsay

    There is something profoundly egalitarian about First Past The Post. Each of us has one vote, which is counted once, and the candidate with the most votes wins, thus acquiring responsibilities for and to every constituent. This system gave us the National Health Service and the national minimum wage.

    But the Conservative overall majority that it has more recently delivered makes it practically certain that the number of MPs is going to be reduced such as to abolish 30 Labour seats. Labour needs to be ready with an alternative proposal, demanding that the two be put to a referendum, with the more successful becoming law.

    It should be proposed that each of the 99 areas having a Lord Lieutenant, areas that are conveniently called different things in each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, would elect five MPs, with each of us voting for one candidate, and with the five highest scorers elected. In addition, the sixth highest scorer would also be elected in the 40 most populous areas, the seventh in the 30 most populous, the eighth in the 20 most populous, and the ninth in the 10 most populous. There would be 595 MPs in total.

    In place of the House of Lords, each of those areas would elect six Senators at the same time and by the same means: each of us would vote for one candidate, with the six highest scorers elected. There would be 594 Senators in total.

    Money Bills would continue to be the sole province of the House of Commons, where they would require a three-fifth majority. Constitutional Bills, which are already identifiable for procedural purposes, would require a two-thirds majority in each House, or a three-quarters majority in the Commons. Beyond that, the powers of the two Houses would be as at present, except that, while Ministers would be required to appear before the Senate, they would not be drawn from it; thus, all Ministers would be required so to appear. Committees of each House would reflect the political composition of that House.

    Senators’ remuneration would be fixed at that of MPs, and Senate candidates would be required to live in their areas, although candidates for the Commons would not be, as they never have been. At least, not by law. Individual parties would be free to make their own additional arrangements. Vacancies would be filled by nomination of the party for which an MP or Senator had been elected, or by a First Past The Post by-election in the case of an Independent.

    The ordinary nomination and deposit system would be waived where a party had submitted its internally determined shortlist of two to a binding, independently administered ballot of all registered electors. These could all be held on the same day, Super Thursday.

    Labour needs to insist that the electorate be presented with this radical alternative, to chose between it and a crude gerrymander that was, as much as anything else, contrary to the principles of Burkean Toryism.

  7. Condelfan

    This left foot forward thing is so last century.
    The voters want right or wrong
    Not left or right
    And that’s why they voted as they did
    You keep categorising everything as left or right, SNP left, UKIP right..
    UKIP and the SNP are very different but have one thing in common- they reach out to the people in a way that Tory and Labour have forgotten, they reach out because they have popular grass roots policies.
    Watch that reaching out by UKIP translate into majority votes next time round, the reaching out that Labour in particular can never do whilst it has outdated policies on just about every subject.

  8. blarg1987

    I would be against electing a full secondary house at the same time as an election. The last thing we want is a big social issue leading to both seats voting in the same party at the same time failing due diligence.

    A better system would be say 20% of the seats being voted for each year having a constant rolling programme to prevent any one party having a majority in every area and ensuring due diligence of any piece of legislation that is passed.

  9. Matt M

    “Fewer than one in four voters will see any of the policies they voted for implemented over this parliament”

    Of course. Political parties often espouse mutually exclusive policies. If half of people vote to reduce the deficit, and half to grow it, then one half will be disappointed. If four parties take four different positions, more than half can be disappointed.

    That’s an unavoidable consequence of democratic decision making – everyone has to live with the decision of the plurality. It’s also a crucial reason why the scope of government should be reduced, not grown. If the policy doesn’t have to concern everyone, then it shouldn’t.

    And don’t tell me PR would make a difference to this. Again, I’m talking about mutually exclusive options.

  10. Biff Vernon

    The oft quoted figures in “Under a proportional system, Green voters would have 24 MPs fighting their corner. Those who voted UKIP would have 83 MPs on their side.” are misleading. Many people did not vote Green as they thought it would be a ‘wasted’ vote. Many voted ‘UKIP’ in a none-of-the-above protest. With PR we should expect many more voting Green and fewer voting UKIP.

  11. Mike Robbins

    Biff is right that these figures are misleading. They’ll do for now – the real point is that they show the absurdity of the system. But in fact voting behaviour would change with reform. So lots more people would have voted Green, but also, many of those who did anyway would probably have given Labour their second preference (as would many SNP voters in Scotland). So the results under a proportional system are very hard to predict.

  12. James Alston

    Hear, hear. Of course these figures are misleading – a different system means that people would vote differently. But it’s still appalling how unrepresentative the current system is.

  13. Patrick Nelson

    These are interesting suggestions. Why don’t you expand upon them more on your site?

  14. David Lindsay

    I often have done.

  15. Dave Stewart

    So what is your solution? Armed reveloution?

    With a PR system hard left parties would be able to get into parliament and even into government as a coalition and from there they can change the narrative and focus we currently have and attempt to move us away from capitalism (assuming they have the support for it).

    I have no time for people who are not prepared to convince others that their ideas are the best and instead incite their follows to violence whether real or wishfully thought.

  16. Dave Stewart

    I would also be concerned about the election of the second house in this way for exactly the reasons you give but also I feel the second house should have a longer term and should ideally be populated with people who have some form of expertise in order for the second house to continue it’s main function which is (supposedly) non-party political expert scrutiny of legislation from the lower house. How one would achieve this I don’t know but the longer terms I think are vital and perhaps after your 1 long term (say 10 to 15 years) you would not be allowed to re-run thus removing the vote chasing mentality which often distorts political opinion. You could also elect this house in stages of maybe a third of the number every 5 years so as to have a slow churn or “lords” through the house thus maintaining that expert capacity both in terms of specific areas but also on constitutional and parliamentary procedural issues.

  17. Dave Stewart

    Not all options are mutually exclusive and compromises can often be made which although not ideal of all (or at least a sizeable majority) of voters are at least acceptable. Also no single party would be able to form a government without the support of an actual majority of voters under PR.

  18. Matt M

    “Vote for A!”, “No, vote for B!”, “No, vote for C!”
    Hooray, A got 30%, B got 40%, C got 30%.

    Now A and C are going into coalition. Maybe we’ll give you A, which 30% of you voted for. Or may we’ll give you D a “compromise” which no one voted for. But we have a 60% mandate – note that voting for an individual party doesn’t mean I approve of all possible coalitions containing that party.

    Not that FPTP is so great. The point is that, because there’s no such thing as the single preference of a group of individuals, voting always leads to weird outcomes. See Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Voting is not generally a good way to make decisions, because they trap everyone with a single outcome.

    Under majoritarian rule, 51% of people can vote 49% into slavery.

  19. Matt M

    Citation needed. Why do you not think the opposite:

    Many people did not vote UKIP as they thought it would be a ‘wasted’ vote. Many voted ‘Green’ in a none-of-the-above protest?

Leave a Reply