The Mother Of All Electoral Disasters


Is British democracy all spin? Britain has long been in the front guard of countries seeking to export democracy to the rest of the world. As the votes in the current general election are being counted, it’s clear that the mother of parliamentary democracies has fallen far below best practice in translating popular will into seats in parliament.

It’s easy to be dazzled by interactive graphics, 3D virtual studios and endless live-blogs when watching election coverage from the UK but the picture on the ground is far less high-tech than in the studio. Thousands of Britons have been turned away from voting booths because of a basic shortage of electoral staff and ballot papers. Given that a big voter turnout has been predicted since the beginning of the campaign, this apparent lack of preparation is astonishing. In some instances, returning officers have even blamed students for the mess — they had the gall to turn up in record numbers to vote, after all.

Slamming the doors in voters’ faces at 10pm increases the likelihood of a close British election being dragged into litigation after the vote. It will mean even more uncertainty and will undermine the mandate of whoever winds up in government.

Democratic processes exist not only to translate popular will into government but also to provide the results with an aura of legitimacy. This utter failure of electoral logistics — the basic inability to gather and count the votes of all those eligible to cast one — challenges this legitimacy. Those voters who missed out in Sheffield, in London, in Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham won’t get to vote for another five years.

Insofar as translating popular will into government is concerned, the British system is dysfunctional not only in failing to collect the votes, but in the "first past the post" system that gives victory to the plurality rather than the majority of votes in each electorate.

In 2005 this meant that 35 per cent of the vote translated to a 48 seat majority in parliament for Labour. The joke on Labour this time around is that their decision not to reform the electoral system in this term means that the Tories now look likely to win the most seats — if not an outright majority — on a similar popular vote. The third party, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, look to be the big losers of this system. They’re tipped to win only 10 per cent of the seats — but from 20 per cent of the vote. Under a system of proportional representation, a Centre-Left coalition would look far more solid.

Even using the alternative vote, or instant run-off system used in Australia — that which Brown proposed at the last minute for the UK — would have held the Conservatives at bay by delivering swathes of Tory seats to Liberal Democrats on Labour preferences. This is because the alternative gives victory to majorities rather than pluralities, and across many electorates the Liberal Democrats and Labour split the progressive vote. Most of the Liberal Democrat target seats for this election were seats that they needed to gain from Tories in order to hold a progressive line against the conservative advance.

If Gordon Brown and Labour see their chances of holding on to power through such an alliance dwindle, they will have nothing to blame but their own stalling on electoral reform during their last term of government.

Instead, what we see is David Cameron spinning a victory off a third of the vote in the same absurd manner that Tony Blair clung on to power in 2005. Cameron is resolutely opposed to electoral reform, using the argument that the first past the post system provides stable and certain governments — even though nothing of the sort looks likely in the current scenario. If anything, 2010 has finally unravelled the stability and certainty argument. The clunking dysfunction of the electoral machinery has only exacerbated this crisis of legitimacy for Britain’s electoral system.

Of course, republicans may yet point out that however the seats finally fall on the night, even after 13 years of Labor government, the House of Lords remains unelected. And in the event that a hung parliament arrangement cannot be negotiated, the democratic gala that is a general election may yet end with the ultimate in undemocratic spectacle: a race to the Queen’s hand at Buckingham Palace.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.