Entry: "Losers Win (Guardian article on Electoral Reform) - 18 November 2000"

[Previous entry: "Visit to Rwanda"] [Main Index] [Next entry: "Eyewitness account from Gaza"]

Losers win
Our 'democratic' electoral system has the same deficiencies as the American model

Oona King
Saturday November 18, 2000
The Guardian

Loser takes all." This headline will surely accompany Governor Bush if he wins the presidency. Al Gore, who won most votes, will lose. A scandal! A disgrace! A coup! MPs at Westminster have been chortling in the members' tea room. A London cab driver, mocking America's democratic deficit told me: "It could never happen here." But it already has. Twice. And that's just in the past 50 years. In 1951 the Conservatives won the election, although Labour won most votes. In February 1974 the reverse happened, and Labour formed a government although the Tories polled most votes.

Call me a stickler for detail, but I've never understood how a system that allows the party with most votes to lose, is "democratic" in the usual sense of the word. The usual sense of the word means "the will of the people". Not the will of a few hundred people in one particular area, but across the country. So when we chuckle at the Mickey Mouse politics in Florida, it's worth remembering that our own first-past-the-post system is based on the same principle as the American electoral college.

Both systems work on a winner-takes-all basis which, paradoxically, can hand victory to the loser. If the American system is long-overdue for change, then so is ours. We credit ourselves with giving democracy to the world. But in the same way that the machinery of our industrial revolution is now outdated, so too is the machinery of our democracy. Our electoral process can't meet its 21st- century job description: to deliver the will of the people, and to encourage the people to exercise their will.

Never have our democracies and our politicians faced such crises of legitimacy. The fundamental problem for our electoral systems is very simple. Although all citizens are equal, their votes are not. In Florida, a few hundred votes will decide the future of world politics. In other states, votes (past a certain point) will have no impact on the outcome at all. This disproportionate influence of a tiny minority of votes, what you might call an electoral autocracy, is what drives election campaigns in America and Britain.

In 1992, if just 1,247 Tory voters in the 11 most marginal seats had switched, the Conservatives wouldn't have had a majority. So 1,247 votes decide the outcome in an election where 44m British people vote. This means that a staggering 99.9% of votes cast weren't decisive. They did not carry the same weight as votes in marginal seats, in the same way today that votes in Georgia do not carry the same weight as votes in Florida.

Even when we see a "landslide" in this country, as we did at the last general election, relatively few votes decide the outcome. In 1997 if 168,000 Labour voters in the 90 most marginal seats switched, Labour would not have won. Delivering "for the many and not the few" is the guiding principle of this Labour government, and indeed of the Labour party itself. So I find it strange that electoral reform isn't embraced by the labour movement with open arms. Personally, I support electoral reform on a point of principle, and so too should every democrat. But even if principles are swept under the carpet, those who argue that first-past-the-post helps Labour, ignore the facts. Between 1945 and 1992 Labour averaged 41% of the vote, the Tories 42.3%. Yet despite this microscopic difference, the Tories were in power for twice as long as Labour. Trade unionists should think long and hard about this.

The symptoms of electoral autocracy are plain to see. Under this system party machines have no choice but to spend time and resources on the marginal vote. Forget the inner cities, forget the heartlands. Forget a constituency like my own in Tower Hamlets, which has the highest density of poverty in the UK. When it comes down to a knuckle-dusting general election fight, we must concentrate on the concerns of the few not the many. In Britain and America the party that has a small majority in a few key constituencies, beats the party with a more concentrated vote.

It's a very bitter pill for Al Gore to swallow, but those are the rules. We can pray for a miracle or divine intervention, but anyone serious about democracy knows the rules must change. I want our system to change, but I want the best part of our system to stay. The Jenkins proposals for electoral reform retain the strength of first-past-the-post, by electing a majority of constituency-based MPs: 500 would be directly elected on the same basis as the current 659 MPs, with the others being topped up proportionately, according to the vote their party received. It would be fairer. It would be democratic. But I have to be honest, there aren't droves of MPs clamouring for change. While the members' tea room at Westminster is full of chortling, it is not awash with the revolutionary zeal required to "bring democracy home".

To say that change at Westminster happens at a snail's pace, is to insult the pace of snails. Back in the 17th century the Tories were called the "Abhorrers" because they abhorred the Addressers (Liberals) who gave an address to King Charles II demanding the immediate assembly of parliament. The Tories expressed their abhorrence of anyone wanting to encroach on the royal prerogative. Dr Johnson defined a Tory as someone who has "long maintained the doctrines of divine hereditary indefeasible right, lineal succession, passive obedience, prerogative etc." On all these grounds the Tories must be delighted with the outcome of the presidential election which is likely to favour George Bush II. And it's obvious why the Tories wouldn't ever embrace electoral reform: not only would it be democratic, but if votes counted, people would use them - and a high turnout favours Labour.

So that's their excuse, but what's ours? As a former trade union official, I have always been disappointed that our trade union movement doesn't see the need for electoral reform. After all, it was our first-past-the-post system that allowed Margaret Thatcher, with a minority of the vote, to bring in draconian anti-trade union laws, and abolish the wages councils. But whatever the reasons, the fact remains that the political establishment does not look likely to fight for this much needed reform. It's in their interests for electoral reform to remain a political "anorak" issue, rather than what it actually is - an issue that cuts to the heart of our democracy. That's why you'll hear a lot of half-truths and scaremongering about electoral reform. In 1939 the British Ministry of Information grappled with the issue of truth when it dispatched a memo on the wartime maintenance of civilian morale. "What is truth? It is what is believed to be the truth. A lie that is put across becomes the truth, and may therefore be justified. The difficulty is to keep up lying ... It is simpler to tell the truth and if a sufficient emergency arises, to tell one big, thumping lie that will then be believed."

So it's up to you. The truth is our democracy isn't working. We need people power to demand change. You could begin by joining the campaign to Make Votes Count. But whatever you do, don't believe the big, thumping lie that we're a grown-up democracy where every vote is of equal worth. As the US has demonstrated brilliantly this week, we're still in the age of Mickey Mouse democracy.