Tag Archives: proportional representation

How the system hurts UK democracy

My article in Global Discourse is temporarily available for free.

Shortly after the UK general election of December 2019 I wrote a policy article for the spring 2020 edition of Global Discourse, setting out what my involvement in politics has taught me about the UK’s flawed democratic system. Now, until the end of November, the article is available free to read as part of Bristol University Press’ Populism and Democracy Collection.

Read my article for free before 30 November 2020 (click the ‘Download PDF’ button on the right-hand side of the article title).

Image of the Global Discourse journal cover page

In the article, I argue why in my view the UK system undermines rather than delivers democratic outcomes. The piece explores the many negative consequences of the system and focuses on that most blatant of all flaws, the first-past-the-post system used for general elections. But it isn’t all grimness: I end with some reflections on how politicians and citizens can work together to overcome the injustice that’s hard-wired into the voting system.

Many of my reflections are informed by the organising and campaigning work I have been doing as an active member and occasional candidate for the Green Party of England and Wales, and a staff member of the political platform Compass, that works across progressive parties and organisations to create the political preconditions for a Good Society.  

Through both, I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the potential as well as the complexity of alliance-based politics, which I would describe as a temporary arrangement between two or more political actors to prioritise a joint ‘bigger picture’ objective over immediate narrow party-political objectives. 

Looking at how the first-past-the-post system works and how it disadvantages smaller parties by design and progressive parties as a result of the national political landscape, it’s not difficult to see the potential of ‘progressive alliances’. Collectively, with their respective votes adding up instead of cancelling each other out, progressive parties have a much stronger chance of achieving a House of Commons majority.

Yet, the simplicity of the maths can easily obscure the complexity beneath, the often historical and cultural differences that affect relationships between political parties and their activists, even when their broad political aims are aligned. Mutual understanding, trust and generosity are key ingredients of a genuine alliance and these take time as well as perseverance to build. 

This is where my article turns from despair to hope: by looking at the people and organisations who have shown how to overcome the political tribalism that the UK voting system prescribes, and by arguing that the successful alliance-based politics that they are putting in practice can lead the way to a revival of genuine democracy at a time the country needs it more than ever.

Let’s not be complacent, though. To achieve what is needed, to win, progressives in the UK have a serious challenge to overcome. In the article I put it this way:

“To be successful, the next chapter of progressive collaboration will have to start from an acknowledgement that we all have things to learn. Everyone will have to understand that past behaviours – our own and those of our potential allies – cannot shape how we treat each other in the present and in the future.”

Betrayed by the system: how the UK’s inadequate democratic system thwarts grown-up politics, and how we can begin to change this appears in Global Discourse, vol 10, no 2, 395-399. Global Discourse is a publication by Bristol University Press. Due to its inclusion in the ‘Populism and Democracy Collection’ the article can be read for free until 30 November 2020.

Linking directly to the article is disabled by the publisher. After following a link from this blog, you’ll need to click on the blue button that says Download PDF on the right-hand side of the title. Apologies for that.

A most curious election result

Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.

That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.

The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.

While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.

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The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?

Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?