This election could be the most distorted in history. We’ll need to fix the electoral system to restore trust in politics.

Alberto Smith from Make Votes Matter makes the case for electoral reform in light of the assumed general election result

Voting Ballot Box

With the question seemingly not if Labour will form the next government but how big its majority will be, all eyes will be on the exit poll at 10pm on Thursday. Specifically, how far beyond 325 the red Labour bar extends, and the distance on the chart between the red and the blue.

One figure that likely won’t get so much immediate attention will be the respective vote shares of the parties. This despite Thursday’s election being on course to produce the most distorted result in the UK’s democratic history.

Every national poll is telling us Labour is almost certain to win the support of less than 50% of the country. But concentrating almost exclusively on seat shares that bear little resemblance to how people voted will give the false impression that Keir Starmer has received a mandate from the overwhelming majority of the UK electorate.

A trivial point, surely? On the contrary, if you’ve ever canvassed a potential voter, you’ll have encountered – usually often – the sentiment that ‘my vote doesn’t matter’. What highlighting the potentially record-level disparity between vote and seat shares would show is that, in most cases, that sense is entirely justified.

The view among many people that Westminster doesn’t represent them, that their votes don’t matter, is, I would argue, an important aspect of why trust in politics is at rock bottom. 

The National Centre for Social Research found in their recent study that trust in how the country is governed is ‘as low as it has ever been’. A record high of 45% of people reported that they ‘almost never’ trust governments to put the nation’s interests first, up from 34% in 2019.

Yes, this crisis of confidence echoes other crises over the past 5 years, and it is in no doubt that respective party leaders believe that their record, standards and vision of renewal can arrest some of that decline. Standards, ethics and integrity matter in politics, that is not in question.

But our political culture stems from our institutions. In many ways, how power is gained, legitimised and exercised matters, as much as – if not more than – who wields it.

With our current voting system, at elections a party only needs one more vote than the second-placed party to be elected, even if this means that the majority of people in that constituency are left empty-handed. When taken at a national level, it means that governments, nearly always elected on a minority of the vote, can wield the power of parliamentary majorities to implement policies that pay little heed to the large parts of the country with no stake in their political programme.

Little wonder, then, that those who almost never trust the government are almost twice as likely (62%) as those who trust the government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ (32%) to support a change in the voting system for general elections.

Restoring public faith in our political institutions will be no simple task. Labour’s manifesto sets out some encouraging first steps, but it cannot ignore the heart of the issue if its programme of democratic renewal is to be successful. 

We must bring our political system into line with our international peers and restore the core tenet of democracy, an equal vote for everyone, to our politics. 

If we truly wish to devolve political power back to our communities, we need to ensure that the true breadth of views in each area of the country are represented fairly. 

We need to level up the political map, by decoupling our politics from a voting system that incentivises parties to devote hugely disproportionate attention to a few thousand swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of millions of voters with equally strong and valuable views on how our country should move forward but who happen to live in safe seats. Geography should not influence the value of your vote, the power of your voice, or the respect accorded to you by political institutions and actors. 

The Labour Party has acknowledged First Past the Post’s role in causing distrust and alienation in our politics. They have identified the disease, it’s now time to back the cure, not simply treat the symptoms. If we are to restore trust in our politics and reset our political culture, we must rebuild our politics around one basic principle: a vote that counts, no matter where you live in the country or who you vote for, and that guarantees fair representation and an equal stake for all in our politics.

Alberto Smith is Interim Chief Strategy Officer at Make Votes Matter.

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