What does winning an election under first past the post feel like for the winners? This is a hypothetical journey for me, an exercise in empathy; because I am a perpetual loser. Not by other measures perhaps, but at 40 years old, by asserting my democratic voice I have only ever lost.
I’ve chopped and changed over the years; voted tactically, voted with my heart, voted with my head, green, yellow or red- something different please, something better. Half-heartedly, not expectantly. Always knowing deep down that the odds are stacked against my vote by first past the post and geography.
I am a fish out of water, surrounded by winners in a Tory safe seat. Raised by a variety of winners and losers undoubtedly, although it wasn’t openly discussed, distantly related to winners (a cabinet minister, no less).
SUCH IS DEMOCRACY, RIGHT?
None of this really occurred to me until 2016. Before then I voted, lost, better luck next time, move along- such is democracy, right?
But then Brexit happened and ever since, my experience of being an electoral loser has become somewhat heightened and unpleasant.
2019 was the worst. A sense of existential dread, a feeling that things could only get worse. The exit polls on 12th December projecting a massive Conservative majority felt like being punched in the stomach. I still feel it.
Right wing politics and the climate emergency are inextricably linked in my brain. It may be that most other people do not experience the ticking ‘doomsday’ clock or envisage glaciers melting and wildfires spreading in quite the same intrusive way that I do.
But that’s the reason I use the word ‘existential’. Every right wing victory compounds the sense of crisis. It’s not just for dramatic effect.
So we’ve had the Brexit referendum, then Trump’s awful election, GE 2017, GE 2019, Biden (thank goodness- although the slow reveal of Democratic gains meant that 4th November 2020 brought with it a now familiar sense of doom, preceded by insomnia and a hunger for good news. Something, anything for us to hang our hope upon).
2019 STILL HAUNTS ME
Yes, 2019 haunts me. So much invested, so much at stake- our freedom of movement, our democratic integrity in the face of blatant disinformation, propaganda, law-breaking and prorogation. An 80 seat majority. How would we ever recover from this? We, the many, strangers in our own country, the disenfranchised citizens of nowhere.
But here’s the weird thing: I also felt relief. Not the most obvious emotion, but it was definitely there in the mix. Perhaps it was the dawning realisation that under this divisive voting system no one actually wins. Losing is horrible, but winning might actually be worse.
Under a system which allows a majority victory based on a minority share of votes, the winners become responsible for everything that follows.
The winners go to ground; they are the ‘shy’ conservatives, they shut down political discourse as improper. They either learn to live with cognitive dissonance as ‘Project Fear’ becomes ‘Project Here’ and the austerity government rebrands itself as something shiny and new or they double down on the lies. I pity their victory.
I saw the ugly rhetoric of my fellow losers on social media, born of fear and despair; “At least with their decisive 80 seat majority, the Tory voters own this now – all of it, every negative consequence- a ludicrous Brexit, a clown-car Prime Minister, a calamitous pandemic response- it’s all on them!!”
NOT HEALTHY OR PRODUCTIVE
This is not a healthy and productive way of doing politics. It is divide and rule. And it works. Our ‘rulers’ know how to capitalise on this by constantly stirring the pot and provoking outrage. They use their ministerial platforms to dial up the temperature on UK politics at every opportunity, dialing up our collective blood pressure and hostility towards the ‘other lot’. So we pick a side or disengage – that’s our choice.
Well, many adults that I know are disengaged. They don’t pay attention; don’t raise their heads above the parapet. Maybe they don’t even vote. I don’t blame them. It must be so much easier than persevering with this dysfunctional democracy. I have heard people say that young people are our best hope. They are expected to save us from ourselves, save the planet, where every preceding generation of adults has failed.
But what political tools are we giving the young with which to ring the changes? The voting system discriminates against them and gives them far less leverage than their grandparents in reality.
A POLITICAL SOLUTION TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
How do we find a political solution to climate change when it takes 22 times as many votes to elect a single Green MP, compared to the average Conservative under this system?
This is why I’m hanging all of my hopes on the campaign to bring Proportional Representation to the UK House of Commons. 85% of developed democracies already use PR so why not us? Other countries have successfully pushed for this and so can we. We can dial the temperature down on UK politics. Global research has found that PR increases voter satisfaction even when another party wins.
We can have diverse, consensus-seeking, democratically accountable grown-ups in charge. A new concept of power which does not lionise charismatic leaders or singular, uncompromising visions of how the country should be run.
Instead, we can have a political ecosystem of talent, experience and expertise. We can have authentic, nuanced, powerful votes. Equal votes and no more safe or marginal seats. No more binary ‘them or us’ decisions. We can share power and responsibility for electing each new government. No more blame and recriminations. No more extremes of doom and elation on Election Day. No more talk of winners and losers. We are all citizens worthy of representation, regardless of our age, ethnicity or whereabouts we happen to live.
The current system favours a narrow demographic at everybody else’s expense, and we all have to live with the consequences (winners and losers alike).
PR: THE BREXIT DIVIDEND!
Proportional Representation means that parliamentary seats match vote share and therefore every vote is equally empowered. 17 million people voted for change in 2016, perhaps knowing that direct democracy gave their votes power for the first time. PR could be our Brexit dividend. This is how we take back control.
Helen Nash is an activist with Make Votes Matter in Salisbury.
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