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Dhaka Tribune

A meaningless ballot?

Update : 13 Mar 2015, 06:06 PM

One person, one vote, equal representation. The core of democratic philosophy. But things are not always as simple as they seem. In the UK, we have 650 constituencies (segments of the country used to elect members of parliament).

The populations in these constituencies range from the large -- 110,924 in the Isle of Wight to the tiny 21,837 in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Scotland. Already there is an obvious problem with these numbers. If you happen to live in Na h-Eileanan, your vote is almost five times as powerful as the poor voters on the Isle of Wight.

I have personally lived in two constituencies with overwhelming majorities. I still go to vote but with the full knowledge that my ballot is meaningless -- the result is a foregone conclusion. I can hardly blame people for not bothering. Even during landslide elections, 70% of seats do not change. UK elections are now decided in around 80-100 seats. This means the rest of the country is largely ignored.

The problem runs deeper still when you take into account our “first past the post” system. Under this arrangement, as soon as a candidate polls more than 51% of the votes in their area, they have won, the rest of the votes are simply discarded.

This was introduced to provide us with strong governments that wouldn’t be infiltrated by extremist groups (something that was extremely important especially after the first and second World Wars with the rise of fascism).

This system has given us strong governments with clear mandates, it has served us well. Until now. In our last election there was no clear mandate, and the conservatives were forced to either form a minority government that could fall with a vote of no confidence at any time, or form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), a left-leaning party most notable for its pledge to abolish tuition fees which led to its core supporters being students. The Lib Dems have hemorrhaged support since entering the coalition after going back on their manifesto pledges time and again.

In the UK, we are peddled the myth that an alternative system of proportional representation where seats in parliament are apportioned according to a national percentage of votes received would lead to chaos and weak government. Ignoring the fact that most European countries have been doing this for years and getting along just fine, thank you very much.

This has accelerated the already sharp descent into apathy by the electorate, fed up with the slow drift by the main parties towards the political middle. You often hear the refrain from UK voters: “All the parties are the same.”

The result of this is a huge increase in support for extremist parties such as UKIP even with their overt racism and xenophobia. As much as I despise their policies, in the next election they are on course to receive around 16% of the national vote but only have two MPs elected. This is not democracy. The story of the Green Party is much the same. With a predicted share of 6% (up from 0.96% in 2010) but still only retaining their one seat.

A wholesale change in the way we approach our electoral system is needed if we are going to stem the flow of apathy. We’ve seen our voter registration and turnout fall from a high of 83% in 1950 to an all time low of 59% in 2001 (it has slightly recovered to 65% in 2010) with young people (18-24) being the least likely to turnout with a shocking 44%.

If we are to re-engage the electorate and keep the extremists at bay, people must be made to feel that their voice matters, that every vote counts, and that ultimately they are being listened to. 

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