David Kent

About David Kent

Professor David Kent taught history at the University of New England for over thirty years. Although 'officially' retired, he continues, as an adjunct appointment, to supervise research students in his field of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British social history.

The great democratic lie: Dichotomic representation’s failure

David Kent on the great democratic lie: It is time to move from the traditional party system to a democracy represented by more, smaller, political parties.

Almost without exception, one of the first utterances of the winner in a democratic parliamentary election is that theirs will be a “government for all”. The fact that such a statement is felt to be necessary is, of course, a measure of its patent falsity. The victor cannot avoid the simple truth that where the electorate has a choice, a significant portion may have preferred someone else. And if the political choices are sufficiently numerous and varied in their policies, the shallowness of the victor’s claim becomes increasing obvious.

The recent election in the United Kingdom, won by the Conservatives led by David Cameron, is a case in point. The bald statistics (courtesy of The Guardian) show that the Conservatives got the largest share of the votes (36.9 percent), the most for any single party (11.33 million) and an absolute majority (of 12 in a 650 seat House of Commons). Already the cries are heard that this outcome provides a “mandate” to pursue policies that may be desired by some and feared by others; and as the rhetoric ramps up, the great democratic lie is exposed!

A closer look at the figures shows that 62.9 percent of the electorate, or 19.37 million voters, did not want a Conservative to represent their constituency. Nearly two-thirds of the total vote of 30.7 million preferred the candidates of other parties and it is plain nonsense to claim that the governing party could ever be a “government for all”, nor would it wish to be so. Of course in the UK, where voting is not compulsory and there is no system of transferable preferences in parliamentary elections, the prevailing system is often defended by the claim that “first past the post” in constituency voting and in the total seats obtained is simple, fair, and provides a result where the people get the government they want or deserve.

It certainly is simple – it’s the way horse races and football matches are decided – and it has the endorsement of tradition. Whether this is enough of a recommendation to persist with it is another matter. It cannot be fair because the majority of voters do not get the government they would prefer. The number of seats won by a party often bears no relation to its nationwide proportion of votes. For example, 1.16 million people voted for Green candidates and 3.88 million votes were cast for the United Kingdom Independence Party (roughly a third of the number for the Conservative Party), yet both have just a single representative in the Commons. While the latter may prove to be a blessing in disguise, it is unarguably true that the supporters of both parties, like those of the Liberal Democrats (7.9 million votes but only 8 seats) must feel that, taken nationwide, they are not properly represented. The argument that the country gets the government it wants/deserves is simply the self-justification of the parties that have the largest claim on popular support and therefore favour the perpetuation of the great democratic lie.

A nationwide proportional distribution of seats, where the total of votes cast is divided by the number of constituencies, would have set a quota at 47,230. Using that simple but most valid formula (and rounding the figures when required), the fortunes of the parties would have looked rather different. The Conservatives would have been entitled to 240 seats (down 91), Labour 198 (down 33), UKIP 82 (up 81), Liberal Democrats 51 (up 43), Scottish National Party 30 (down 26), and Greens 24 (up 23).

Divided along these lines, the House of Commons would have come very close to genuinely reflecting the will of the electorate. Neither of the two major parties could have commanded a majority without forming coalitions or agreements with other significantly represented groups. In both Britain and Australia, however, that is routinely dismissed as a recipe for weak, unstable government despite the experience of both countries in recent times when governments have had to employ the politics of consultation, negotiation and consensus rather than command. The world didn’t come to an end, much useful legislation was passed and the worst excesses of unbridled ideology were restrained. There is an added hypocrisy in Australia where one side of politics relies on a permanent coalition of the conservative Liberal and National Parties.

It is increasingly the case that in many parliamentary democracies, the trend is towards more small parties. Electorates are deserting the old-fashioned political behemoths, with their reliance on rusted-on support, in favour of issue-driven parties which, because they are never likely to command majority support, approach politics as a matter of negotiating best possible outcomes. For a democracy to be healthy it must reflect, as closely as possible, the actual will of the people rather than the structurally engineered unrepresentative outcomes with which we are so familiar. Proportional representation will not be achieved without a massive change of mind-set among politicians – and possibly years of analysis to find the most suitable variant. But if one believes in democracy, and the notion that the electorate should be properly represented in all its complexity, a move to a properly proportional system is the only way to restore the steadily diminishing confidence that many citizens have in governments and the political process in Britain, Australia and elsewhere.

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