Why the British and American electoral systems are broken, in numbers.
The UK election brought to an abrupt end the political drama that started in 2016 with the Brexit referendum. For over 3 years the British people and their politicians have debated, argued, signed petitions, marched in protests, fought legal battles, and those who wanted to remain in the EU have lived with hope. That is now over.
Without a flicker of irony, Boris Johnson has claimed he will now heal the divisions created by the Brexit vote he largely brought about, much like an arsonist offering to put out the fire he just started in your house. But the numbers in the last British election suggest that healing divides is going to be very challenging indeed. The British election, in numbers, also shows what may happen in the American election. Increasingly, the failings of both the UK and US electoral systems mean that radical governments are winning power with a minority of the votes, and carrying out radical policies that leave large sections of both societies feeling disenfranchised and angry at what is happening to their countries. How is that possible in a democracy, and how might it play out?
The British election was as much about ‘democracy’ as it was about leaving the European Union. Many people who supported Brexit talked about doing the will of the people, respecting the outcome of the referendum, and therefore upholding ‘democracy.’ Johnson has even gone so far as to call his new government “the people’s government,” apparently without recognising the parallels with ‘The People’s Republic’ of China, which has threatened to send in The ‘People’s Armed Police,’ to quell democracy riots in Hong Kong, not to mention the many parts of the Soviet Union which were prefixed with ‘the people’s’. None of these in any way represented or served the people.
In as much as the election was about Brexit, it was indeed about democracy. It was a showdown between two understandings of what British democracy is. For one group, democracy was the will of the people as reflected in a referendum (direct democracy), and to the rest it was the duty of politicians elected to represent the people to act in their best interest (representative democracy). The UK is a representative democracy, which is why the referendum caused so much chaos.
Whereas the American system has the Electoral College, which allowed Trump to win power without winning the popular vote, the British electoral system works on a first past the post principle, which also means that the number of votes cast for a party does not reflect their representation in parliament. Both systems allow people and parties to win absolute power without winning a majority of the votes. This is the way it works, so I am not suggesting either outcome should be challenged. But it is a system that is clearly no longer working, and it clearly needs to be reformed. As a result, America has Trump despite more Americans voting for candidates other than Trump, and the UK has Johnson, and Brexit, despite more people having voted for parties other than Johnson’s, and only a 3rd of the electorate having voted for Brexit — 37% of the electorate voted to leave, 36% voted to remain, the rest didn’t vote in the referendum.
In a British election, in each constituency the candidate who gets the most votes wins a seat in parliament, and whichever party has the most seats forms the government. It is first past the post, because if a candidate gets just 1 more vote than the other, they win all the power. In so called ‘safe seats,’ where the candidate has a large majority, it is very hard indeed for another candidate to win. This means that large numbers of voters never have the ability to change anything, rendering their votes essentially wasted. In other systems, with optional preferential voting or proporational representation, those dissenting votes do have an impact, making them more valuable.
Currently, neither the UK or US systems translate into the winning party havig to have the most votes. In the British election, 43.6% of votes cast were for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, but they won 56% of the seats in parliament, while at least 47.8% of votes were cast against Boris, but they achieved just 40% of the seats in parliament. One reason is that those votes were split between a variety of parties — talks of tactical voting clearly failed.
To demonstrate this, the Electoral Reform Society calculated that the number of votes it took to elect a candidate to parliament varied hugely depending on the party. They did this by dividing the total number of votes cast for each party by the number of seats they won, which looked like this:
864,743 votes to elect 1 Green MP
642,303 votes to elect 0 Brexit Party MPs
334,122 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP
50,817 votes for a Labour MP
38,316 votes for a Plaid Cymru MP
38,300 votes for a Conservative MP
25,882 votes for a SNP MP
All of this is even more complicated because the UK is made up of four countries: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Each has their own political stories playing out. Devolution to local parliaments gave each of these countries far greater powers over local matters, but ultimately, they are ruled from Westminster — the parliament in London. So, for example, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a huge majority, with 48 seats in Scotland, but the country’s future is decided almost exclusively by the Conservative government in Westminster, which only has 6 seats in Scotland.
For example, while the majority of the votes in Scotland went to the SNP, a party that supports remaining in the European Union and advocates leaving the United Kingdom, the parliament in London will force Scotland to leave the European Union in January, and has said it will not sanction a referendum on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. This effectively traps the Scottish people in a country outside the EU, rather than allowing them to become a country inside the EU, despite voting 62% to remain in the Brexit referendum.
In Northern Ireland, for the first time in its history more people voted for a Nationalist party than for a Unionist party. The nationalists favour Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining Ireland, whilst the Unionists support remaining within the Union with the UK. In the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain in the EU. So, as with Scotland, Northern Ireland will be forced by England to leave the EU against its wishes, and may try to leave the UK and join Ireland, which is in the EU.
Finally, in London, the nation’s capital and its economic engine, people overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, and did not vote for the Conservative government that will be based in their city. London is responsible for 23% of the UK’s economy, whilst hosting just 13% of its population, and the South East region in which London sits is the only part of the country that contributes more in tax than it receives in public money. London will soon be taken out of the European Union; a policy they did not vote for, by a government they did not vote for.
The election was seen as a vote on Brexit. The party saying they would ‘get Brexit done,’ won the most seats. Boris Johnson is saying this is now a clear mandate for him to pull the UK out of the European Union at the end of January. But it is not that simple.
Across the UK, more than 52.67% of votes cast went to parties who support remaining in the EU or holding a second referendum, whilst only 47.33% of votes went to parties that support leaving the EU. This is in line with most recent polls, which show the same shift in attitudes since the 2016 referendum. While this does not argue for dropping Brexit, it does suggest that it is a policy supported by a minority of the population, but which affects all of the population, which is why it has become so very divisive.
Because of this dysfunctional electoral system, the UK now has a government that does not represent the most fundamental wishes of a majority of people in Scotland or Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, and is acting against the wishes of most of its capital city.
This will leave a large part of the United Kingdom feeling disenfranchised, and that their country is being governed for other people not for them. There will no doubt be a lot of deep-felt anger, if not fury, in Scotland, London, Northern Ireland, and amongst over half the electorate of United Kingdom when the country leaves the EU in January.
How the various electoral groups of the UK react will be interesting to watch. Johnson is now running the country for a minority electoral base, just as Trump is in America. He risks taking the UK out of the Union with Europe, and seeing Scotland and Northern Ireland try to leave the Union with England.
Both the Conservatives and Republicans are doing what they can to hang onto power. They are both, effectively, minority governments holding all of the power. They do not represent the young, or most minority groups, or the political centre-ground. The Left have made all this possible by completely mis-reading the public mood and thinking they should counter hard-right politics with hard-left policies.That failed disasterously in the UK, and will hit the Democrats if they don’t learn from Labour’s mistakes (the first of which is to elect a leader non-party members can vote for too).
British democracy is clearly broken, but whichever of the two main parties is in power never wants to reform the electoral system because it would damage their grip on power. In the US the failings in the system also benefit incumbents, and in particular the Republicans, too much to lead to any real reform. In the UK and US it will be interesting to see how long a government can rule for a minority before the majority have had enough, and what that looks like when it happens.