The impact of the recent referendum result will be wide-ranging and long lasting. Despite the misleading claims, the xenophobic nature of the leave campaign, or that we were asked to choose between remain or leave without knowing the actual terms of the latter, it was nevertheless a significant exercise in one particular aspect of democracy. For unlike any general election, or indeed local council elections in England and Wales, the referendum was different in that every single vote counted.
This has led to renewed calls for reform of our voting system to ensure that the outcome in future elections more closely reflects the people’s choice.
Whichever way you look at it, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system does not deliver a properly democratic outcome. At the last general election nearly two thirds of those who voted, ended up with a government they didn’t actually want. In fact, only some 25% of those on the electoral register, and 37% of those who actually voted, supported the Conservatives, but the party still won over 50% of the seats and 100% of the power.
FPTP also encourages tactical voting, where people choose between the lesser of two evils rather than the candidate who they really want to win. I know how unsatisfactory this can be as I have even done this myself (although where I live it made absolutely no difference to the result).
But if that isn’t enough to convince you that something is wrong, consider this. Because of FPTP, it is the votes in a relatively small number of marginal constituencies (about 140) that can decide who forms the government (the remaining 510 seats usually being held by the incumbent party). But many of these marginals don’t change hands either. Indeed, at only three general elections since 1950 have more than 100 seats been lost to a different party. So election campaigns by the two main parties, not surprisingly, are directed at these marginals; and it is the views of swing voters in these seats that really matters (an estimated 200,000 out of a total electorate of 45 million). What’s more, because the political parties seek their support, these swing voters end up shaping policies. No wonder Labour MPs are so keen to appeal to the centre ground.
The unavoidable conclusion is that most of us have no say on who forms the government under a system of FPTP. But in a democracy, shouldn’t every vote count?