Published on May 8, 2015

The notion that one MP can represent all constituents is absurd

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

While the election headlines are dismal for the Liberal Democrats and Labour, things aren’t any better for democracy.

Despite the Tory swing and small majority, long term trends towards multi party politics and recent elections show that people are still not being represented under the current electoral system.

This much is true and increasingly a mainstream view. However, there’s a deeper problem too.

In terms of the representatives who will be heading to Westminster some significant anomalies stand-out. The SNP have won 55 seats on the basis of 1.5m votes, while UKIP has taken 1 seat on significantly more than double the number of votes cast. But this is not a story of England, Scotland, the Union and representation of the English. The Greens look likely to be in a very similar position to UKIP; the number of seats they have won can in no way be described as proportional to the number of votes cast for their candidates.

This simple chart from the Financial Times says it all.

Embedded image permalinkThe arguments for our current system is that by providing a big majority we get strong, decisive government. The problem with this argument – and many of the counter arguments for a different electoral system – is that they are based on the notion of individual voters being represented; this misunderstands one of the key strengths of democracy and risks us misdiagnosing the problem.

Voters who put a cross in the box for one political aren’t a homogenous group. They hold different views, often contradictory, sometimes closer to other parties, sometimes views that aren’t expressed by any political party. The notion that these people can be represented in Parliament by one MP all the time is absurd. However, their views can be represented if we get the system right.

The perspective that we want and need strong government is based on the view that there is a right and a wrong decision. However, the bulk of the questions that face the country just aren’t like that. How do we deal with an aging population? Increase taxes and pay for all care? To what level? The climate is changing and will always change, the decisions we take will affect different groups in different ways, some will gain and some lose. Who should gain? Who should lose?

There is no self-evidently correct answer to these questions and many more; just a series of bad choices and trade-offs to balance. It is a complete nonsense that one MP could possibly represent all of my interests (which are often in conflict depending on the different decisions they are being asked to take), or those of the three generations in my family, let alone the whole constituency.

So if democracy isn’t about representing people (or isn’t  just about representing people), what is it about?

Democracy is strongest when it draws out the views and opinions of the public in all their glory. Exposing the fault lines in the debates makes the tensions clearer, provides voters and politicians with more information to understand who will gain and lose from different policy options, it will lead to decisions that are more likely to be better as a result.

Some of the views expressed in a properly plural debate will be mad, as judged by the mainstream. But it’s the ideas at the margins that are often the right ideas for the right time. I need no more evidence for this than that a significant number of Monster Raving Loony Party policies have now become law.

Understanding that democracy’s strength comes from representing ideas, views, debates and different worldviews makes the tragedy of this election clear. Without electoral reform we will not get a diverse group of people into Parliament, and we will therefore not get a diverse set of views expressed. Keeping first past the post will mean that the party which ends up with a majority after the next election will not have its policies and decisions properly tested. It will have no access to the diversity of opinions and views that the public hold. No matter how large its majority it will be significantly weaker as a result.

 

Featured image credit: Al Richardson

Graph credit: @elliot_bentley

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