Illustration: Annabel Westermann
Six months into the Conservative majority-government, and we’re already bombarded with scaremongering that we are entering an era of perpetual Tory rule. Some commentators would have you think that this is the end of the left in Britain. Others will try and tell you that the result of the General Election was still a mistake; that in reality, there exists a massive portion of the population that was cheated out of a victory, and now the Tories are going to rig the system to make that cheating legal. This is simply not true.
Last May, the Conservative Party achieved a popular vote of 36.9 per cent of ballots cast. This translated into 50.9 per cent of seats in the Commons. Inevitably, the argument of how a Proportional Representation system would have given a much more balanced result will present itself: but that debate has been settled. In 2011, 67.9 per cent of those voting in the referendum on whether or not to change to voting system firmly said ‘No’. ‘First-past-the-post’ is here to stay for now. As such, any political party worth their salt must work within the system, and not fantasise about what could have been if an unrealistic factor had been in play.
The reason for the Conservative victory was very simple. The majority of the people who turned out at the polling booths felt that the Conservatives were the party most similar to their political beliefs: or, by extension the party best suited to govern this country. That is the magic formula needed to win an election. It doesn’t require trickery or deception. However, the reason for the electoral boundary reform stems from the fact that even if the plurality of voters supported the Conservatives, this still only left them with a slim majority – less than the one they deserved.
Under the current constituency boundaries, the opponents of the Conservatives – most notably the Labour Party – require fewer votes per candidate in order to gain a parliamentary seat. The Conservative-dominated shires tend to have larger constituencies than the urban Labour strongholds. What this means is that voters in urban areas have a higher level of influence in the make-up of Parliament. The reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600, as well as the changing of the electoral map by standardising constituencies, is simply an exercise to rectify this irregularity that partially disenfranchises rural voters.
In a country that wishes to call itself a modern democracy, it is paramount that at its base, there exists a principle that all voters have equal influence. Moreover, the ballot must be blind to institutional factors that might otherwise render voters unequal: class, race, and gender are just some examples. The only criterion that one must meet for casting a vote are holding a valid passport and living in this country, subject to restrictions on convicts. The electoral reform solely seeks to achieve the preservation of a fundamental ideal of our democracy. Of note is the fact that, had the reforms had been in place before the election, the Conservatives would only have increased their seats in Commons by 1.4 per cent. With such a paltry increase this cannot be called a power grab in any sense of the term. It is merely altering the current system to reflect the will of the voters to a greater degree.
Some, however, will still be unconvinced. They may point to the fact that only 66.1 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, and argue that any vote would still not be legitimate. But this is simply untrue.
Indeed, it is vital that the importance of voting be stressed at every stage of education, and that as much should be done as possible to avoid disillusionment among voters. However, some people still forget, some are uninterested and some just don’t wish to bother. Furthermore, changing the voting system itself will not bring about a miraculous rise in the number of people voting. One just needs to look to the rest of the European Union to see that; my home, the Republic of Ireland, is a prime example. In 2011, with the collapse of the Irish government and in the midst of crisis, the turnout still only reached 70 per cent of the voting population This was a mere 3.9 per cent higher than the proportion last May. It is also a prime example of proportional representation in action, whereby, instead of any election manifesto being implemented, a coalition is formed. In this case, this is not only toxic for the junior party, but it also results in a compromise that no one actually voted on or for.
If opposing parties wish to have a chance at government, they need to return to basic principles. The way to win elections is not to lambast the successful party about a system that was nationally held to be the fairest. Any political party’s success marks the failure of another. Rather, it is to go out onto doorsteps with firm policies that unify both the party and its supporters, and appeals to the plurality of the population that wishes to vote. It is to meaningfully engage with those groups of people that feel that the current party does not do enough for them.
I have the height of respect for anyone of any political persuasion that braves the cruel weather and vicious dogs of Britain to convince people of the merits of their party. However, it’s not just about telling people to vote for a party, it’s about the party showing the people that it can be voted for.