By Willie Sullivan
It's been nearly three months since Boris Johnson returned to the dispatch box and declared the newly reshaped Commons as the 'People's Parliament'. But the government's big new majority – after a decade of hung parliaments and small victories – masks the real facts on the ground: the millions of voters who were effectively ignored in December.
How can a parliament claim to properly represent the people if almost three-quarters of the population are systematically silenced?
It's a question that is being asked again, as new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society shows that over 22.6 million voters' ballots had no impact on the election result.
The facts are startling. Of 32 million votes cast, 14.5 million went to a non-elected candidate. The remaining 8.1 million ignored ballots were surplus votes for winning candidates, above and beyond the number the needed to win. That means just 9.4 million votes directly contributed to the result.
Under a proportional system like the Single Transferable Vote (STV), these votes would be redistributed – ensuring voters aren’t left on the electoral scrapheap. We’ve just witnessed an Irish election that saw exactly that: voters changing preferences reflected in the results, and, crucially, a campaign that wasn't dominated by talk of pacts and tactical voting but on real policy.
How parliament is picked has huge implications for the issues that get heard and people's trust in our political system – which, as the latest figures show, is at rock bottom.
The crisis of representation affects voters differently depending on where they live or who they support. Across the UK, just over 50% of Labour voters saw their vote unrepresented (ie they did not go to a winning candidate), while 92% of the Liberal Democrats' 3.7 million voters suffered the same fate.
Smaller parties are hit hard, with over 96% of votes for the Green party going unrepresented alongside all of the Brexit party's 644,255 votes. When one party takes all, others are left to pick up the scraps. Or, in many cases, nothing at all.
We also witnessed the flip side of tactical voting: parties making tactical decisions about where to offer choice. The Brexit party stood down in all the Tories' 2017 seats, while on the other side the Unite to Remain pacts saw pro-EU parties step aside in 60 seats: further turning a complex election into a referendum on Brexit.
A quarter of votes in December went to parties other than Labour and the Conservatives –yet those same parties were rewarded with just 13%. This inequality becomes starker when you look at how many votes it took to elect candidates for each party.
On average the Conservatives needed just 38,264 votes to elect an MP to Westminster – yet for Labour that figure stands at 50,835. The Liberal Democrats needed 336,038 for each seat in parliament and over 865,000 votes were cast for the Green party yet this translated into just one MP – Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion seat.
Results across the country continued this pattern of disproportionality. The Westminster system is so dysfunctional that around a third of seats in Scotland, the South West, the South East and East of England were 'unearned' in proportional terms.
And despite an unprecedented one in three people voting tactically – consolidating votes for the major parties – the end product was disturbingly warped.
Exclusive YouGov polling conducted for the ERS after the election found that one in three voters (32%) chose to vote tactically, instead of choosing their preferred party or candidate. This is a big increase on the 2017 election and shows just how badly our current system is working – neither voters nor parties should have to game the system on such a large scale.
We wouldn't see these distortions and voters wouldn’t have to make these tactical choices under a proportional voting system. As we've just seen in Ireland, using a preferential system like STV, voters saw their views fairly reflected in their parliament.
It will take time to see the impact of a large majority won on a minority of the vote. As has happened across parties, it can lead to an undeserved sense of entitlement in government – claiming to represent the nation, and the ability to ram through any and all controversial legislation. And in disproportionately strengthening executive power, it simultaneously weakens scrutiny, with opposition parties lacking resources and deserved representation to hold power to account.
This election must be the last under Westminster’s broken electoral system. We need a fairly elected and proportional parliament – one where seats match votes and the choice facing the public is not limited by safe seats and backroom deals.
Only once our parliament begins to represent the views of the voters who elect it, and ordinary people feel like their voices are fairly heard, can we begin to consider it a People's Parliament.
Willie Sullivan is senior director (Campaigns) at the Electoral Reform Society. The ERS' new report – Voters Left Voiceless: The 2019 General Election – is available here.
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