What’s wrong with British Elections?

With a general election around the corner, now seems as good a time as any to examine the flaws in the British Electoral System. Britain is a nation that claims to have a strong democracy but can it flesh out these claims? With recent voter turnout in general elections hovering in the mid-60% range, many are not having their voices heard. The First Past The Post voting system means that even those who do vote do not necessarily have their votes count the same, depending on where they live. Debates between leaders have recently become a centrepiece in UK elections, but with little coverage of local hustings, how useful are these showpieces? The voices of young people are actively ignored, with 16 year-olds able to join the military but not have their voices heard in their society. Finally, the constituency boundaries in the UK are often nonsensical but also are currently open to partisan gerrymandering.

One major issue with elections in the UK is turnout. Low turnout in elections give elected governments questionable mandates. Turnout of registered voters at a general election has not been higher than 70% since 1997, dropping to below 60% in 2001. This is combined with the fact that a high number of people not registered to vote. With just over 45.7 million registered voters in a population of around 52 million voting age people, this means at the last election only around 58% of voting age people’s voices were heard. There are a few possible reasons for this. A major and easily solved issue is the day elections are held: Thursdays. A tradition arsing as far back as 1647, or possibly to allow the new Prime Minister to form a cabinet over the weekend to start work and allow markets to react on the Monday. But in a connected, 24/7 world, this is no need for this break. A weekend election would allow many workers more time to vote, or even making polling day a public holiday could see a rise in turnout. Higher turnout leads to more democratic mandates to govern, but still leaves flaws in the system.

Much like America, the voting system in the United Kingdom is not entirely helpful in giving a fair voice to every voter. This system leads to skewed results nationwide, and makes votes in safe seats wasted and in close seats exaggerates the winner in the full results. This also means votes in marginal seats have more power in elections than votes in safe seats. With only 85 to 100 seats deciding recent elections, 550 constituencies will likely not matter come polling day. In the 2015 election, UKIP received almost 4 million votes but only one MP, requiring 100 times as many votes per MP as the Tories. Under a proportional system, UKIP (3.8 million votes) would have been the UK’s third party gaining slightly more votes than the Liberal Democrats (2.4 million votes) and the SNP (1.4 million votes) combined. With so many voting systems available, and a number of different systems being used in local elections across the UK and general election in Europe, there is proof that these systems are workable within the UK at the national level. Any opportunity to make every vote count should be seized upon in a democracy, and not cynically attacked by powerful elites as was the case in the 2013 AV referendum.

Another issue with the way we vote in the UK is the age at which people can vote. While 18 year-olds are deemed old enough to excercise their democratic right, 16 and 17 year-olds are somehow too immature to be allowed a voice in their own futures. At 16, you are old enough to join the armed force and fight for your country and to pay taxes out of your earned income, but still two years away from deciding who it is sending them to war and setting their rate of tax. This is an age group who have already made decisions about the course they want to take in life with their GCSEs and university applications, decisions that have a major impact on the future skills put into the economy but are helpless when it comes to who is running their council, city, and nation. The Scottish Independence Referendum is proof of how well this can work, with around 100,000 16 to 17 year-olds registering and 75% of them turning out to vote, a higher proportion than in the 18-24 range.

Another issue with how British elections take place is how information is delivered to a large number of voters. The televised leaders debates of the 2010 and 2015 elections were viewed by 9.4 million and 7 million potential voters respectively. While this is an opportunity for party leaders to flex their debating muscules and inform voters of the major policies in their manifestos, that is only half what of what the election about. A majority of voters are not directly voting for the leader of a party but a representative for their constituency. Yet local hustings receive fairly poor coverage. With most major news networks having local coverage, it would not be impossible to better promote and cover these events to help provide local voters with a better knowledge of who they will be casting their vote for come polling day, and what that means locally.

The issue of constituents knowledge of who they are voting for is further complicated by the very real possibility of partisan gerrymandering. This is where constituencies are redrawn in such a way that the party in control either wins more seats or holds onto those it has with larger margins. While this sounds sinister, it is exactly what the Conservative’s proposed boundary changes would have been. Under the guise of making seats more equal in terms of population, the boundary changes expanded countryside, traditionally Tory seats and wiped out inner city Labour seats, even splitting some communities down the middle of roads t(source most of the above). Setting up an independent body to review and suggest boundary changes would not be a tough task and would mean any changes were out of partisan hands. A ruling party being allowed to chop and change the electoral map is hardly a sign of democracy in action.

So, while having your voice heard at elections is important, especially to change these flaws, how well it will be heard is an issue in itself.


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