A broken political system

Nadia Whittome says our politics is broken while urging Labour to fight for democracy

Our electoral system is broken. In the last general election, the Conservatives won 43.6 percent of the vote but 56 percent of MPs. Meanwhile, just under a third of eligible voters did not vote and millions more were denied political representation. Our Parliament does not accurately reflect the country’s political views. 

I understand the disillusionment and powerlessness many feel. The survival of a democracy is premised on people buying into the system and feeling that they have a say in how society is run. It is clear that many in the UK do not. Politicians lying and breaking manifesto pledges has shattered the public’s trust. What happens in Parliament can feel far removed from everyday lives and struggles.

Many fail to see the difference voting makes after a decade of Conservative-led governments they did not choose. From Brexit to the break-up of the UK, powerlessness and a lack of representation are factors in many political crises of recent years. Our electoral system has enabled governments to rule in the interests of a minority, inflicting devastating austerity on working class communities.

There is no quick fix to our society’s democratic deficit, but there is one legislative change that would be relatively simple to introduce: proportional representation (PR). Our current first-past-the-post system means our elections focus narrowly on fewer than a hundred marginal seats. Many feel, justifiably, that their votes do not count and will make no tangible difference to the outcome. Under PR, everyone’s vote is meaningful and Parliament would closely reflect public opinion. 

It would also be a step towards challenging the neglect of communities in safe or unwinnable seats, and reshaping a political culture built around a small number of floating voters in marginal seats to one where arguments to the whole electorate must be made and won. Our party would have the chance to present a bold vision to tackle the climate crisis, transform our economy and transfer power to communities – and to give every voter an equal opportunity to make this a reality. 

The process of voting itself should also be made easier. The more barriers there are, the more organised voters have to be – it’s hard to decide on the spur of the moment to vote if you’re working on polling day or aren’t registered at your current address. 

The Welsh Labour government is exploring whether flexible voting pilots can take place in next year’s local government elections. Ideas include voting in supermarkets and colleges, opening polling stations the weekend before an election, and allowing people to vote at any polling station in a local authority. 

The UK government is heading in the opposite direction with plans for an additional requirement of voter ID. It claims this is to stop electoral fraud, but in 2019 there was only one conviction and one police caution for offences relating to impersonating another voter. 

When a trial voter ID scheme was run in the 2019 local elections, polling stations turned away around 2,000 people without their IDs. Over a third didn’t return. This change will stop people from voting, but that’s the point. The government isn’t trying to prevent fraud – it’s deliberately disenfranchising marginalised groups, many of whom are less likely to vote Tory. 

In the 2019 pilot, awareness of the new ID requirements differed by demographic group, with younger voters and those from black and minority ethnic groups less likely to know about them. The government’s own commissioned research found that disabled people, the unemployed, people without qualifications, and those who had never voted before were all less likely to hold any photo ID. In the US, similar legislation has been used to devastating effect. This is straight up voter suppression and we must fight it tooth and nail. 

Beyond this attempted disenfranchisement, plenty of people are already denied a vote despite living in the UK and being considered an adult in other contexts. Only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in general elections, with millions of migrants excluded. Over 1.6 million 16 and 17 year olds are also denied a vote.

I was delighted to play a small role in helping to pass ground-breaking policy to give migrants voting rights at our 2019 Conference. Labour is the party of all working people, regardless of where they were born, and the labour movement has a long tradition fighting for universal suffrage – from Peterloo, to the Chartists, to votes for women. Until we extend the vote to all UK residents over the age of 16, this struggle is not over. 

Labour should be at the forefront of these fights – not only pushing back against attacks on our democratic rights, but campaigning for a society with democracy at its heart. Reforming our voting system is an important place to start.

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