A note on democracy

Chris Northwood
Dec 13, 2019 · 6 min read

What a night. On the face of it, it looks like a massive boost for the pro-remain parties. The Liberal Democrats grew their share of the vote substantially, the biggest growth of any party: 1.3 million new voters! It’s clear the “Stop Brexit” message resonated with many. The Brexit Party didn’t make huge gains if you consider them the successor to UKIP from 2017, and the Conservatives have attracted some new voters, but not exactly a huge amount, which suggests their “Get Brexit Done” message didn’t sink in with many, and the Greens seem to have attracted as many new voters as the Tories.

The clear loser of the night were sadly Labour, losing 2.6 million votes. The 2017 surge that Labour saw has sadly regressed, although the party still did better than they did in 2015. But, progressive parties gained over 52% of the vote, which we should be heartened by — we’re still clearly a divided country, but we’re still one that believes in internationalism. Now let’s see what a parliament with a progressive majority can do?

Wait, what do you mean the Tories gained 47 extra seats off the back of a 300,000 increase in votes, and now have a majority? Oh well, I guess the Greens also got 47 more as they had a similar sized swing? No? Oh well, at least the Lib Dems should have massive amounts of extra seats for the 1,300,000 they gained if that’s the case! Hang on, they lost a seat overall, despite the almost 50% boost in their vote share! Does seat allocation in parliament get decided by dice or something?

This seems wrong…


The makeup of our representatives in Parliament doesn’t reflect the way our country voted. And that’s problematic. First Past The Post is designed to skew the result to give a single party complete control, even if they don’t get a majority of the vote. It eliminates the need for compromise in parliament and allows a unified minority to rule over a disparate, but aligned, majority. This is, according to promoters of this system, designed to lead to effective government over coalitions, which were thought to be messy and ineffective.

When the only stable and effective government of the last decade was a coalition, and when coalitions are common in government across the developed world with effective governments emerging elsewhere, it’s time to question that assumption. These attributes of FPTP are also not good in a nation still carrying open wounds from the 2016 EU membership referendum and the aftermath of that, and when huge decisions about the nature of the UK’s future relationship with not only our closest neighbours, but the world, are to be made in the near future.

Surely, for representing our country to the world, we want a compromise position that reflects the views of as many citizens as possible, rather than one that strongly represents the views of a minority of citizens, and alienates others?

The 2016 EU membership referendum was an event that changed everything in the UK’s political landscape. The constitution of our nation still hasn’t really figured out the place for referenda yet. Centralised control, devolved from the crown to elected representatives or nominated experts has always been the way, rather than direct democracy. Our elected representatives are supported by armies of researchers within their own parties and the civil service if they’re in government, and are scrutinised by the Lords, who can hold the detail of any particular act to reasonable account. When we have referenda and elections under a system which has no minimum standards for truth or accuracy, and no formal recourse for being misleading, this breaks the checks and balances that our government and parliamentary system currently has

It’s not only referenda and a change in behaviour in campaigning that has stretched our constitution, we’ve seen challenges and questions over many matters ranging from parliamentary process to the role and scope of the courts to interpret the constitution to keep the government in check, and even the nature of the relationship of the monarchy to our democratic systems and how much is devolved to her advisers. It’s clear things need to change, to stop opportunistic politicians abusing constitutional vagueness for their own gain and using that vagueness to drive a further wedge through the nation. It’s clear our constitution is long overdue for a review to clarify the vagueness and gaps that have emerged, but this should not be rushed and should be measured, considered and reflective of the whole nation.

Our democracy only works if those who govern us are representative of us as well as representatives for us. This not only means having a diverse set of elected representatives matching the background, heritage and experiences of our nation, but also our beliefs — which is the role of the values and ideologies of political parties. Party policy, expressed through manifesto, can be used to give tacit approval to the concrete realisations of those ideologies. When we vote, parliament should accurately reflect the intention and makeup of the electorate.

What is clear is that our electoral system for national elections is not producing parliaments that reflect the voting intention of the UK. As mentioned before, this is by design, but now is the time to re-design that. This reform can only happen if there’s a reasonable consensus on what a good design actually looks like though. There is no perfect system, and there will always be compromises.

  • Should we keep a geographic link between elected officials and the electorate, or should parliament represent the UK as a whole?
  • If we do keep a link, how big should the link be? Large regions with multiple representatives makes it easier for a region to reflect its voting intention, but an area too large could have an overly diverse set of views that one group of representatives can not completely reflect.
  • How should the role of the Speaker work, as this deprives a geographic area of representation in votes under the current system, but the role is part of our system.
  • Should we elect the House of Lords, as well as the Commons?
  • How do we ensure the role of the Lords as scrutiny of the Commons is kept, as opposed to just a second political chamber, if we even want to keep that role at all?
  • When we do elect a representative, what’s the best way to indicate it, is it just to indicate a favourite, or should we be able to indicate other preferences, in order to best enable compromise?

The issue of electoral reform will not go away, but we ourselves who believe in it need to compromise to find a concrete solution that can be proposed. A strong, clear message can be communicated a lot clearer than a vague drive in a certain direction, especially when that drive can be watered down by the incumbants who will resist any change that deprives them of their unfairly earned power. We’re not going to get that answer now, or right away, but we need to have those discussions, assess the pros and cons, share and reflect on others views and move towards this goal. Please have a think, and then blog on your thoughts on what this system could look like. Through constructive bouncing of ideas off one another we can derive a system we can all get behind it.

This is not a new idea, but it’s timely. There are many movements that exist already, such as Make Votes Matter and their Good Systems Agreement seems to be a good framework to think about our voting system through, and it has backing already from several major political parties. So please, think, share your thoughts through blogging or social media (use the hashtag #MakeVotesMatter) and take part in a constructive discourse to raise profile of the movement and put pressure on those who benefit from our unfair system.

There is hope. Last night’s results are not reflective of our country, and it’s not right to have a government and parliament that doesn’t reflect its citizens.

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A software engineer writing about his passions and wanting to iterate towards a better industry.

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