New Business Secretary Sajid Javid wasted no time in announcing that the government would legislate to force unions representing members in essential public services to obtain 40% of those eligible to vote on a minimum 50% turn out of all the workers. The government is also to relax existing regulations, thereby permitting agency workers to replace striking workers.
The attack on trade unions is no doubt the latest move from a fundamentalist neo-liberal government set on seeking to remove any encumbrance remaining to the operation of the market.
The move is made all the more audacious given that the government itself was only elected by 24% of the 46 million people eligible to vote.
Indeed, the moves to outlaw strikes have focused attention on the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the electoral system as it now operates. The last election saw smaller parties like UKIP (12.6%) and the Greens (3.8%) take a combined total of 5 million (16.1%) of the votes, yet receive just one seat each. The Conservatives took 36.9% of the total votes cast (11,334,576). The SNP took 56 seats but only stood in Scotland, thereby gaining a disproportionate say on the affairs of the whole UK.
The question of the overall democratic deficit is underlined by the fact that on a 66.6% turnout, one in three people did not vote at all. When the number of votes, effectively counting very little under the present first past the post system are taken into account, the existence of a democratic deficit becomes all the more obvious.
Since the election result there have been growing calls from across the spectrum for electoral reform. The need for change has been on the agenda for some years, the closest that the country ever came was when there was a referendum in 2011 on the possibility of replacing first past the post with the Alternative Vote (AV) – a form of proportional representation.
The AV system proposed required the winning candidate to have more than 50% of the vote. If on the initial count this was not the case then the second preference votes of the bottom candidate were allocated. This process continued until one candidate had 50% of the vote. The idea though was soundly rejected in the 2011 referendum, with 68% voting against compared to 32% in favour, on a 41% turnout (19.1 million).
The more radical version of proportional representation would see the number of votes a party receives nationally reflected in the number of seats it finishes up with in Parliament. Under a PR system, the results of the last election would have seen the Conservatives with 240 rather than 331 seats and Labour 198 instead of 232 seats. The smaller parties would have profited, with UKIP getting 81 seats for its 3.8 million votes rather than the present one. The Greens would have got 32 seats instead of the one they have now. The Liberal Democrats would have 51 seats instead of 8. The nationalist parties would have faired slightly worse, with the SNP taking 47 as opposed to 56 seats for its 1.45 million votes in Scotland.
One of the concerns over the introduction of PR is that it would not provide the stable (if often unrepresentative) form of government that first past the post does. Coalitions would become more commonplace. Given that such coalitions would likely be made up of more than two parties, the basis for instability is obvious.
A little more crystal ball gazing in terms of the result from the last election – had it been on PR lines – certainly gives some food for thought. The Conservatives would have to combine with UKIP and one of the other smaller parties – probably the Liberal Democrats - to get the 326 seats required to form a government. Labour would likely have had to put together a coalition involving the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens.
One of the democratic failings of PR is that it can cut the relationship between constituents and their individual MP. Some PR elections are held in multiple member districts.
There are two main forms of PR – party list PR and the single transferable vote (STV).
Under the list system, the parties put forward candidates with the electorate voting by party. The number of representatives emerging is then allocated according to the percentage of the vote that each party attains. The weakness of this system is that it totally destroys the link between the MP and his or her constituents. It gives almost total power to the party machines to decide who the representatives are for a particular area. The opportunities for patronage and abuse are obvious.
The STV is a bit like AV, allowing the preferences of an eliminated candidate to be transferred to the others, until the winner or winners reach the threshold set to get elected.
Mixed member proportional representation (MMP), also known as the additional member system (AMS), is a hybrid allowing one winner on the largest take of the vote with the balance being made up via the list system. The voter has two votes, one for the individual and another for the party list. This system preserves to some degree the individual link between MP and constituents.
Some form of PR is used in 94 countries, the list system being the most popular format (85). MMP is used in seven countries while only Ireland and Malta use the STV. MMP was first used in Germany, post second world war and spread to Lesotho, Mexico, Bolivia and New Zealand. The AMS form has been used in the London, Welsh and Scottish assembly elections.
The list system of PR is used in elections to the European Parliament, with parties putting forward candidates in order of preference. They are then elected according to the overall vote for the party in that regional area. It is perhaps a sobering thought to remember that in the European elections last year UKIP came out as the largest party with 24 seats, compared to 20 for Labour and 19 for the Conservatives.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has called for electoral reform. “My own sense is that this is an idea whose time has come. Our two-party system – with an occasional walk-on part for a Lib Dem protest vote – may have worked in the postwar decades, but is now irretrievably broken,” said Frances.” For those of us whose main commitment to civil society is not through party politics, the chance of a more serious national conversation can only be an opportunity for a more open and fair society.”
Something certainly has to change, with parties winning four million votes and only getting one seat in return, whilst one in every three people don’t vote at all. Recent elections have shown growing support for the smaller parties , so the first past the post system that favoured the two party system is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. The way forward would seem to dictate a need to move to a more proportional form of representation, though this will only make up part of what is required if the democratic deficit is to be filled in the UK.