Comment: Time to put our broken electoral system out of its misery

Thursday's general election takes place under the first-past-the-post voting system
Thursday's general election takes place under the first-past-the-post voting system

By Alex Runswick

Our electoral system is outdated, unfair and thoroughly broken. A handful of swing voters in marginal seats will decide who wins on Thursday; how the rest of us vote bears almost no relationship to who sits in parliament.

This picture, from our Election Leaflets project, shows the magnitude of the problem:

If you’re lucky enough to live in a marginal seat like Taunton Deane, you will be bombarded with messages from candidates, because your vote makes an enormous difference both to who becomes your MP, and the overall balance of party seats at Westminster. Meanwhile, if you live in a safe seat, like Tottenham, the communication is so sparse you could be forgiven for not even knowing there is an election on at all. In these safe seats the real contest is the candidate selection, not the election. How can it be right that some results can be known before the election?

Safe seats mean that power rests with political parties, not voters. They are the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs. There are candidates who will get elected no matter what. Is it any wonder there is so little communication with constituents even in the run-up to one of the most unpredictable elections in living memory? Targeting the swing voters in marginal constituencies makes sense for politicians running a campaign, but it leaves voters in safe seats out in the cold. Voters in safe seats are less likely to vote than those in the marginals.

The problem doesn’t stop with safe seats. Even in seats where there is a real contest, there is little real choice. Our electoral system encourages voters to choose only those they think stand a chance. In the marginal seats, Election Leaflets monitoring sees, over and over again, the now-staple (and often misleading) 'Can't Win Here' graph, calculated to persuade voters to vote tactically rather than with their hearts and their beliefs.

This election has been highly unpredictable for pollsters and pundits. The reason for this is that we are using a two-party electoral system for a multi-party election. As a result, many MPs will get elected without winning a majority of the votes cast in their constituency. In 2010 two-thirds of MPs were elected with less than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency. Let's take just one example to illustrate how our outdated electoral system cannot cope with the reality of multi party politics: Simon Wright was elected as the MP for Norwich South with just 29% of the vote despite the fact that twice as many people voted against him than in favour. At a national level the picture is even more stark. Some polls are predicting that the SNP could win every single seat in Scotland with barely more than half of all votes cast.  Love or loathe the SNP, this result would be a disaster for democracy in Scotland.

Unlock Democracy believes that everyone should have a real chance to decide who governs our country. Whether your vote makes a difference or not shouldn't be a quirk of geography. The way our elections work encourages parties to ignore the views of the majority of the British public to focus on the handful of swing voters in marginal seats. An unfair system doesn't just give us an unfair result, but unrepresentative government as well.

We need a proportional voting system where voters have a real choice of not just which party holds the balance of power, but also who represents them locally. Proportional systems can - and should - satisfy voters in terms of both candidates and overall make-up of Westminster seats.

The need for electoral reform grows stronger as each election shows that the current system is broken beyond repair. Even staunch critics of reform in 2011 like Daniel Hannan have come out in support of a proportional electoral system, citing the shift from a mostly two-party system to a multi-party system as the reason. Is the tide turning at last?

It is likely that coalition negotiations will once again take place following the election. Will electoral reform be on the agenda again? It certainly should be. We cannot have another election under an unfair system which cannot cope with the modern political landscape. Let's push for something different: a system where everybody's vote matters and politicians will need to work hard to earn every vote.

Alexandra Runswick is director of Unlock Democracy

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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