Let the people decide, really decide

Alan Story, co-founder of the campaign group GET PR DONE!, outlines how the first-past-the-post system is preventing voters from holding the Government to account.

Polling station
Polling station
Alan Story

With 20 fixed penalty notices being handed to Downing Street staff for lockdown-breaking parties, British political news is starting to jostle with war news from Ukraine on the front page. More notices could be issued any day.   

In the short term, Boris Johnson seems safe in his job. While few would agree with the dismissive view of Jacob Rees-Mogg that Partygate is merely ‘the disproportionate fluff of politics’, it is hard to challenge the verdict that the PM has temporarily escaped from the political quicksand of just six weeks back.

He is clearly revelling in his supposed ‘Churchillian moment’ over Ukraine, and even disgraced former Health Minister Matt Hancock is being dragged before TV cameras to praise Johnson’s great ‘leadership’ in this crisis. 

But what of the mid to longer-term? What if Johnson is himself served with such a penalty notice by the Met and it can then be shown beyond a scintilla of doubt that his repeated claim to the House of Commons that ‘all (Covid) guidance was followed’ by his own office was, bluntly, a bald-faced lie. What then?

They say ‘the people will decide’  

Looking ahead, commentators are already saying that it may take a general election to settle who was right over Partygate and Tory sleaze in general. And so the mantra goes: ‘the people will decide.’ 

This suggests that we’ll be reading a headline something like this on the day after an election on, for example, 27 May 2024: “STARMER SWEEPS TO VICTORY IN A NEW LABOUR REPEAT” 

Not so fast. Much more likely, the headline that day will read: “PM SUNAK (or TRUSS or WALLACE) AND TORIES HANG ON TO POWER WITH A 34 PER CENT VOTE SHARE.” 

But surely, you may say, that couldn’t happen. After more than a decade of Tory slime and corruption and downright incompetence, won’t millions of voters simply decide at the ballot box ‘kick the bums out’? That would be the end of the Conservatives’ reign for the rest of this decade at least. 

Our ‘winner takes all/ loser gets zilch’ electoral system does not, however, guarantee such a result. The number of votes cast for a party does not match the number of seats won… and it is seats that are all important.

43 per cent of the vote – 56 per cent of seats

Let’s look at a few numbers. In the 2019 general election, the Tories won 43 per cent of the overall votes. Under the wacky maths of first-past-the-post (FPTP), this meant they got 56 per cent of the seats and an overall majority of 80 seats. 

Yes, I do think it is fair to predict that the overall Tory vote total will drop in the next election. If it dropped a full 9 per cent to 34 per cent, wouldn’t that be curtains for Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Hancock, and Priti Patel? 

Votes per MP 2019
Votes per MP in 2019 (Credit: The Electoral Reform Society)

Again, not so fast. Consider what happened to Tony Blair and Labour over the deeply unpopular (and illegal) Iraq War. In 2001, Blair kicked off his second term by winning 40.7 per cent of the overall vote. But chiefly, due to that war and Labour voters switching to the anti-war Lib Dems under then-leader Charles Kennedy, the overall Labour vote slumped to a mere 35 per cent in 2005.  

But as we know, Labour and Blair survived the shame of Iraq and won another sizeable majority at Westminster. And so could the Tories in the next election, on similar results. 

Canadian election results are a warning

A final warning against complacency comes from Canada, which uses the same archaic FPTP voting system as we do. In its 2021 general election, the ruling Liberals under PM Justin Trudeau were returned to power. Not only did the Liberals win only 34 per cent of the popular vote, but that was less than the opposition Conservatives received.  

They say ‘the people will decide’, but the people do NOT decide under the crooked maths of FPTP. The value or power of votes is mostly dependent on where they are cast and for which party. Some votes are worth 20 times as much as others as the accompanying chart shows. And if you live in a safe seat, the winner can often be declared before the election is even called.    

The pressing need for all progressive parties – including and especially Labour – to campaign for a fair voting system should be clear. That system is proportional representation (PR), and it is already used by more than 80 countries. 

Yes, we will have to use an FPTP election to vote for political parties supporting PR. And that will definitely require tactical voting against the Conservatives. (Note: if we gain PR, much despised tactical voting will never be necessary again.) 

But unless we do, Priti Patel will still be Home Secretary in 2026 and beyond. That is something which, in my opinion, should fill us with dread. 

So let the people decide by bringing in PR. We know that the Conservatives will oppose such a move to the very end, and they are both changing constituency boundaries and bringing in voter ID to try to cling to power. 

Not only would implementing PR be a huge democratic step forward for ALL British voters, but it would potentially be a huge step forward for the Green Party of England and Wales and its electoral fortunes. 

Remember: there is no jurisdiction anywhere across the globe where the Greens are serious political players unless and until PR has been won. 

Don’t mourn, organise.

Alan Story lives in Sheffield and was co-founder in 2020 of the cross party/ no-party campaign group GET PR DONE! https://getprdone.org.uk / getprdone@gmail.com