Ewan Wadd explains how in the North and South West we are all cheated by the voting system
Throughout the most recent campaign to change Labour policy on the voting system, being from Teesside and living in Bristol, I have seen it from two perspectives: the South West, where the Tories dominate and Labour representation is hard to come by outside cities; and Labour North (the North East region plus Cumbria), where Labour hegemony was shaken by Conservative victories in December 2019.
With different perspectives come different arguments. The argument for the MP-constituency link rings hollow in many Tory constituencies. Each region has distinct psephology (election maths), which provide evidence for the need for change. Our country has changed drastically since 1832, when most people weren’t allowed to vote. It is time our voting system caught up.
Anyone with access to Wikipedia and Excel can do the analysis shown below – and presumably Tory HQ too, which is why they are so keen to hang on to First Past the Post.
No one can say the result in the South West reflects the will of the people. Labour have less than half the influence their votes suggest. The Conservatives have significantly more seats than Labour and Liberal Democrat, 48 to seven.
Unfortunately, the North is only slightly better although the Conservatives are more or less in line with their vote share. At first sight, it appears that Labour ‘benefits’ – gaining more seats. But the boost for Labour is markedly lower than it is for the Tories in the South West.
This is down to two reasons. First, Labour only marginally won the popular vote in the North, resulting in a much smaller boost than the Tories in the South West. Second, opposition to the Tories in the South West is split almost equally between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The lack of a consolidated opposition allows the Tories to wipe both out. In the North, it is a two-horse race, making the result much more equal. First Past the Post was made with two parties in mind – adding more choice just creates unrepresentative results.
Both these examples show the ridiculousness of our current voting system. When you look at the Commons as a whole, it is a farce to say that we are a representative democracy. For Labour’s chances in 2023/4, if we have a marginal swing of 5% from the Conservatives, we regain most of the seats we lost in the North in 2019. It is achievable to win a dozen more seats and dominate the region again. However, as we saw in Hartlepool, the scale of this challenge may be greater than originally imagined.
In the South West, it is much more difficult. Unless the opposition parties revive a Cook-Maclennan type overlapping policy and massive tactical voting – which took 29 seats for Labour and Liberal Democrats (15 and 14 respectively) as opposed to 22 seats for the Conservatives – left-leaning South West votes will remain undervalued and uncounted. The Conservatives may still win the most seats, but we can remove a few bricks from the Tory ‘blue wall’.
Votes in the North are more important to Labour than those in the South West. And therein lies the problem with FPTP. Votes in marginal seats are much more valuable than those in ‘safe seats’ where the result is a foregone conclusion. Millions of votes are wasted, and parties only need to appeal to swing voters to win. As a student living between the North and the South West, I find it brutally unfair that my vote is more valuable to Labour if I cast it in Darlington than in Bristol. Where you live should not change your vote or whether or not it counts for anything.
Crucially for Labour, the current system exacerbates regional, social, wealth, gender, and ethnic inequalities in the priorities of government. This feeds into policy making, widening all forms of inequality. And as we’ve seen with the pork-barrel politics of the Towns Fund, funding can be given to important electoral districts, rather than those who need it most. If parties only need one group of people’s votes to narrowly win dozens of seats, whose needs will they prioritise?
Voting reform must be a priority for the Labour movement because it is fundamental to democratic socialism. Our values of equality, justice, legitimacy, need to be applied to the voting system. Labour has embraced this cause before. Keir Hardie, our first leader, supported PR, and when the last Labour government created the Greater London Assembly and devolved administrations, they were elected by PR systems.
While this psephology has made me more optimistic of a Labour resurgence at the next election, it has further convinced me of the need for democratic renewal in this country – where all our votes count, not just those in marginal constituencies, and the House of Commons more accurately represents the people.