OPINION: The State of British Democracy

Words: Isaac Lomax

Fifty-one years ago, Lord Hailsham decried British democracy as an ‘elective dictatorship’. Since then, more votes than ever are being wasted, and the same parties remain in power. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that little has changed – because it hasn’t. In fact, this issue is only getting worse, in particular for the UK’s generation of first-time voters.

Curricular politics only begins at A-Levels, and the Department for Education is seemingly unwilling to change this, which keeps private schooling, and its early access to politics courses, safe, and the everyday student obliviously marginalised.

The system that holds general elections in the UK, First Past the Post, is waging a rampant crusade against democracy – right under the noses of the British electorate. It bases the outcomes of elections on constituency results, the vast majority of which are Conservative, due to the fact that the party in power can alter constituency boundaries to favour themselves – the controversial tactic of ‘gerrymandering’. Subsequently, the more constituencies a party has, and the larger those are, the more chance it has of winning an election. Quite literally, where you live determines if your vote will count. Fair? I think not.

Let me give you some alarming statistics. Out of a voting population of approximately 47 million people, less than a quarter voted Conservative in 2015, which equates to 42% of the vote – less than half of it. More alarming is the fact that UKIP, whether you like them or not, won over 4 million votes, gaining only a single seat in Parliament. Thanks to a system that can only be called rigged, the Conservatives now have over 300 seats in Parliament, and yet 58 voters in every 100 voted against that.

So far, I have briefly explained the supposedly democratic side of British government. What follows is the undemocratic side of a system already suffering from democratic deficit – the House of Lords.

The Second Chamber contains 801 unelected peers, 92 of which are there simply because they inherited the position. Why is this significant? Because public tax pays their above-average salaries, and you’ve had no say about it. There is no stage during the appointments process at which an everyday voter gets to have their voice heard. People can only become Lords through the monarch, the Prime Minister, or, very rarely, commendation by a senior public official. 

The effect that this is all having on my generation is nothing short of catastrophic. Young voters in particular are disengaging with the political system – and quite reasonably: they have lives to live and don’t see the point of getting involved if nothing ever changes. Most people my age lose an interest in political discussion from the word go, because it simply isn’t introduced as a viable path of equal interest, due in part to the way in which political education differs between private and comprehensive education. For instance, almost half of the Lords’ hereditary peers went to Eton.

I study A-Level Politics, but I’m still not convinced by the system – at all. You would hope that, with the advent of social media and related platforms, young people might help shape future policies – but alas, no. So archaic is British ‘democracy’ that this cannot be the case. Boris Johnson, however, is on Snapchat…

In 2011, voters had a chance to instigate change; with the Alternative Vote referendum. It offered a transition to a vastly more proportional system, based on individual candidates selected by voter-preference, but a 68% majority voted to keep First Past the Post. Or at least, that’s how it looked. Because of poor turnout, it was actually less than 14 million people voting that way – in other words, 20% of voters effectively dictated the outcome of the coming years of general elections.

The main problem is that those in power want to retain the process that put them there. This means clinging onto First Past the Post. It also means that material change is unlikely in the near future. In previous years, politicians have shunned other methods of voting, citing logistical problems and the potential for wasted public funding. This is nothing short of whitewash. 

Wasted funding does not look like that – money spent in favour of a more proportional system is unequivocally useful and is difficult to waste. Wasted money looks like the £19.5m spent, per major party, on constituency campaigns for each general election, all to see who will represent the broken system next. That is the real waste of money.

A proportion of voters benignly accommodate disenfranchisement within the electoral system, by voting tactically. Because of First Past The Post, it would take the majority of voters in what is effectively a two horse race to overrule the limitations of existing constituency boundaries. This, however, will not happen when people already accept, before even casting a ballot, that they effectively have a choice between the two major parties. Labour or Conservative are the only major names ever to take the stage in recent political history. British society is continuing down an ever-narrowing road of opportunity for electoral reform – and it has to end at some point soon. 

As the upcoming generation, we need to stop this widely unrealised crisis from developing further by staying reliably informed by reading quality journalism and reporting, voting genuinely and, above all, challenging the status quo. It’s our future. It’s our country. It’s our choice. 

Do what you can to make Britain a functioning democracy – before it’s too late.