What is the end, the goal of democracy? It is to allow the people to hold to account those who exercise power over them. In our sort of representative democracy it does not mean that politicians simply do what the people vote for. Most of us have neither the time nor the expertise to make informed decisions in a complex world, so we elect those we trust whom we think are qualified to make these decisions on our behalf—and then, come election day, we hold them to account for the decisions they have made. This has been the case for a long time. Although we are fond of tracing the idea of democracy back to the ancient Greeks, for the Roman emperors it was important to establish the idea of the consensus omnium, that the emperor governed with the agreement of the mass of the people.
That means that there will sometimes be surprises—and this election there have been more, and bigger, surprises than in living memory. Many were delighted at the big Conservative names that were toppled in 1997; but there have been more Liberal Democrat and Labour big names that have gone—Ed Balls, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Danny Alexander, Douglas Alexander, Charles Kennedy, Ed Davey and Jim Murphy. Just as the loss of experienced and talented Conservatives crippled them for an electoral generation, Labour will struggle to fill some of the gaps, and I think the Liberal Democrats are over as a political force in this country, with only eight seats in the Commons, and coming fourth behind UKIP in vote share.
Heads will roll in other ways as well. UKIP’s Nigel Farage will almost certainly resign as party leader—but so will Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. (As next Labour leader, my money is on Chuka Umunna, for two reasons. First, he can eat a bacon sandwich in public, and second, he has had business-related experience in the ‘real world’, as a solicitor specialising in employment law, which gives him credibility that Miliband always lacked.) I wonder if there has been an election in which all the main parties other than the winner had an immediate change of leader?
In all these ways, there is a frisson of excitement that the people, wielding stubby pencils (mine was very stubby) in rickety booths in town halls up and down the country have power over those who, a few weeks ago, seemed immune from criticism. But is that what really happened? Here are some things worth noting from the overall results:
- Labour share of the vote went up 1.4% overall, but their number of seats was down by 26.
- In England, Labour share went up around 5%
- Conservative share of vote only increased by 0.7%, but they will have 21 more seats in Parliament.
- Anti-austerity parties gained more votes overall than pro-austerity parties.
- Vote per seat [as I write] were as follows:
|Votes||Seats||Votes per seat|
In other words, this Parliament is now even less representative of the views of the people than the last, and the Conservatives have significantly increased their control without in fact persuading any more people of their case than in 2010.
So what was going on? Well, you might not have realised it when you voted, but there was someone else in the voting booth with you: money.
In the last election in 2010, the Conservatives spent twice as much as Labour, and it looks like the same has happened again. The Telegraph reports that, in relation to the election itself, the funds were even more unbalanced:
The latest Electoral Commisison [sic] report on donations received by the political parties is out. The Conservatives’ funds dwarf those of Labour – by £1.3 million to £131,000.
And the primary donors were, not surprisingly, those in the finance and business sector who stood to gain most from a Conservative government.
Last time around, the difference in funding did not determine the result—but this time spending has been more targeted and more effective. In 2014 the Conservatives pushed through a change in the law, raising the limit on national election spending, to make the most of their advantage. And targeted campaigns in marginals (like Broxtowe, where I vote) come under the less-tightly regulated national limits rather than the more tightly controlled local ones, as long as the mailings come from a central source. So not only were we surrounded by Conservative billboards, we also received several ‘personalised’ letters from David Cameron. And it worked. Despite the fact that the Labour candidate here had a much better record as a local MP, there was a swing away from Labour and to the Conservatives in contrast to the national swing.
The second way that money has influenced the election is in distribution of voting. I strongly suspect that, when all the analysis has been done, we will find that those who have done better out of the changes to the economy, particularly in the South East, will have moved more to the Conservatives, whilst those who have done worse, particular in the north, will have moved more to Labour. In other words, Britain will now be a more divided country after the election than it was before. And our ‘first past the post’ system exaggerates this. As the result in Scotland shows, where there is a concentration of interests, FPTP completely distorts the result. Having taken almost all the UK Parliament seats for Scotland, the SNP does not even have a majority in its own Scottish Assembly because the Assembly runs on PR! It is sobering to remember that Hitler was elected to power through a democratic system…
So the process of the people holding those in power to account appears to have significantly failed.
Three things need to change in our electoral system.
- First, there needs to be equal access to funding, so that one party cannot outspend the others in the election campaign.
- Secondly, media outlets ought to be regulated to offer the same balance of coverage as the BBC does, as a public service broadcaster.
- Thirdly, we urgently need to reform the voting system and move to a form of PR.
Will any of these happen? No, of course not, since the the party now in power has a vested interest in maintaining the current system as it is.
And for anyone concerned about the future of the NHS, for the growing inequality in income and capital distribution, for the lack of houses being built, for the culture of our education system, and for all the other issues that have not even been touched on—we will have to find other means than a skewed ballot-box to express our concerns.
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