If you were to ask the average elector in a modern liberal democracy to define the term ‘democracy’, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’d hear something along the lines of ‘one man, one vote’. Clearly, this commonly used phrase must date back to an era when women were denied a vote, but in the interests of accuracy I’m not going to modify it merely to pander to the dictates of so-called political correctness.
However, those who parrot such phrases rarely stop to ask whether all votes are equal, although in every system I’ve looked at it is not the case that all votes carry the same weight. A classic example from recent history is the US presidential election of 2000. Although Al Gore gained more individual votes than George W. Bush, the exigencies of the electoral college system meant that the latter ‘won’. Al Gore’s votes were in the ‘wrong’ places.
The United Kingdom operates a similarly anomalous system. When the country’s forthcoming general election was announced, all the talk was of ministers fanning out across the country to canvass for votes. I will stake my house that no political heavyweights will set foot in the constituency where I’m registered to vote. It’s the largest (by area) in England, and you could stick a blue rosette on a dancing pig and it would still be elected as a Conservative MP. The current MP is stepping down, ostensibly for health reasons, but in fact, like many of his colleagues, he was caught with his fingers in the till. However, I still cannot see anything other than a Conservative victory there.
This scenario is replicated across at least two-thirds of the UK’s constituencies: most people vote the way they’ve always voted, meaning that the results in these constituencies are a foregone conclusion. The election will be decided by so-called ‘swing voters’ in only a handful of constituencies. All other votes will have a value of zero.
And then there is the question of what proportion of the electorate actually vote for the winning party. In the 1997 general election, the Labour Party achieved a landslide victory—with a huge majority in Parliament—with only 43.2 percent of the vote, a result of the massively unfair ‘first past the post’ system. Margaret Thatcher had a much smaller majority in 1979 despite being supported by 43.9 percent of those who bothered to vote. And when voter turnout is factored into the equations, the winning party was supported by 33.4 and 30.8 percent of the electorate in 1979 and 1997, respectively. Not exactly democratic, is it?
Nevertheless, despite this tenuous level of support, the winning party proceeds to claim that it has been given a ‘mandate’ to carry out the measures it proposed in its manifesto. The voters are ignored for the next four or five years while being treated to the truly disgusting spectacle of professional politicians claiming to be better informed about education than teachers, to know more about the delivery of healthcare than doctors, and to have a better understanding of law and order issues than policemen.
So will I be voting on 5th May, given the apparent futility of the exercise? Yes, I will. I regard people who can’t be bothered to vote with contempt and have only two words for them: Emily Davison. Not bothering to vote is not an abstention, although abstention is an honourable course of action given that one’s vote is regarded with such arrogance by politicians. If you want to abstain, you must still visit your local polling station and in the official jargon ‘spoil your ballot’. I will probably write the following on my ballot this year (knowing from my time as a candidate in local elections that all the candidates have to see any ballot that may be considered invalid):
“I couldn’t find anyone on this list who didn’t make me want to throw up.”