Boris Johnson Is Not The Problem With British Politics – The System Is

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister of the UK on Wednesday 23rd July, beating rival Jeremy Hunt—the former Foreign Secretary—in the Conservative Party leadership election.  Some are happy with the result. For example, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the news, exclaiming that Johnson ‘will be great’ and that ‘they call him Britain Trump’ in a tweet.  Some are less optimistic: The Irish Times did not mince its words in calling Johnson’s appointment as PM ‘a new nadir’ for the U.K. 

Some are concerned about what Johnson’s victory will mean for Brexit.  Johnson was the face of the Leave campaign during the referendum and is open to leaving the EU without a deal; however, Parliament is still against a no-deal Brexit, approving the Benn amendment, that is intended to prevent a no-deal scenario, earlier this month.  Regardless of where you stand on Johnson or Brexit, neither are the problem with British politics, they are merely symptoms. The real problem is the system itself. 

In a country with a population of over 66 million, as of 2017, the decision of who should be the next Prime Minister was given to an estimated 160,000 Conservative Party members.  92,153 voted for Johnson, beating Hunt’s 46,656. And so Johnson will now lead, in the words of freelance journalist Phil McDuff, ‘a minority government pushing through a regressive agenda in pseudo-coalition with the DUP’ that Johnson inherited from May.  Johnson is now PM by default because the Conservatives are the governing party despite not winning a majority. Relying instead on the DUP, a party with only 10 MPs in Northern Ireland, to pass legislation. 

One of the main arguments for the First Past the Post system (FPTP) that the UK uses for its general elections is that creates majority governments and stops smaller parties from getting undue influence over national politics.  In this instance, FPTP has failed on both counts in recent years.

Defenders of FPTP also claim that FPTP fosters stability that Proportional Representation (PR) cannot match.  Like the majority government argument, the past decade has also stripped this assertion of its credibility. Since 2010, there have been three referenda, three general elections, four Prime Ministers and two hung parliaments resulting in one coalition and one minority government propped up by the DUP.  The 2010s have proved to be a decade of political upset for the U.K. and there is still over a year to go before the decade is out. It can no longer be reasoned that FPTP grants British politics stability. If anything, it might have made matters worse and misrepresents public sentiment. 

A party’s support or lack thereof does not always translate well into seats.  For example, at the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives won a mere 36.9% of votes yet were awarded 50.9% of seats.  When the party increased its vote share to 42.5% in 2017, the Conservatives lost 2% of their seats, leading to a hung parliament. 

Tactical voting and wasted votes are some of the most corrosive by-products of FPTP, and disillusion the electorate.   Analysis of the 2017 General Election done by the Electoral Reform Society, which has campaigned for Proportional Representation since 1884, showed that 6.5 million people voted tactically.  It cannot be beneficial to democracy if millions are voting for a party they do not agree with just to keep another party that they agree with even less out of power. 

The same report from the Electoral Reform Society also found that 68% of votes (22 million) at the 2017 election had no effect on the outcome of the election.  These 22 million votes were either for a losing candidate or a surplus for a winning candidate. When so many votes are wasted, it is understandable why voters become disillusioned with politics: for many, their votes do not matter and politicians ignore their needs accordingly.  Voters are left disaffected and wanting change, such as leaving the European Union for example. 

Smaller parties, with no concentrated areas of support, are the biggest losers under FPTP.  The Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Green Party have all seen their public support be translated into very few seats.  At the 2010 General Election, Labour won 29% of the vote and the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote. However, Labour won 39.7% of the seats whilst the Liberal Democrats were awarded only 8.8% of seats. 

Earlier this year, Labour won the Peterborough by-election, winning 30.9% of votes, narrowly beating the Brexit Party’s 28.2%.  The vote was split four ways meaning that the overall winner was able to win with very few votes. Now the whole constituency is represented by a party who less than a third voted for. Under FPTP, millions of votes are essentially discarded and ignored because they are not compatible with Westminster’s commitment to the duopoly. 

This duopoly also creates a hostile environment for newer parties and encourages Labour and the Conservatives to remain as single parties despite the increasing infighting and differences in political beliefs within the parties.  Both parties have been unable to agree on one stance on Brexit. Attempts to pass a deal in Parliament have been defeated by rebel Conservatives as well as the other parties whilst Labour is paralysed by indecision. If they oppose Brexit, they risk losing core supporters.  If they support Brexit, they risk losing a different set of core supporters. 

The advent of the Independent Group, a centrist, a pro-Europe party formed by defecting Labour and Conservative MPs demonstrates that the binary system in place disguises the diversity of political attitudes within the major parties.  It also reveals the extent to which the parties are divided internally. If MPs have more in common with MPs from the party that is supposed to be their arch-rival than they do with the rest of their own party, surely it means that there is something wrong with the existing system? 

An alternative to FPTP is Proportional Representation (PR), which, as its name suggests, is far more representative of how the electorate voted.  This could encourage more people to vote, knowing that their vote would contribute to the overall outcome of the election rather than being ‘wasted’ under FPTP simply because of where they live.  Some studies, such as that of Pippa Norris, indicate that turnout is higher in countries using PR as opposed to those using FPTP. Apathy is a big problem with British politics and democracies function better when the public is engaged with politics.  Otherwise, policies will continue to be tailored towards those who consistently vote, such as the elderly. 

Votes have equal value under PR, meaning that marginal seats would lose their disproportionate influence over policy.  Parties would have to start appealing to all voters, including those in safe seats who they can currently ignore. If Mollison’s estimate that roughly half of all UK constituencies have not changed hands since 1945, then this would force a serious rethink in terms of strategy for the main two parties. 

Brexit has exposed the divisions within the major parties, both in their parliamentary branches and amongst their voting bases.  The result? Squabbling and infighting, leaving the country in a limbo that nobody voted for. Feeding multi-party politics into an outdated binary has distorted the political landscape and it needs to be replaced with a more representative model.  Maybe all this political upset will lead to the necessary change.