The Independent reports on the Institute for Public Policy Research latest publication detailing why British democracy must be reformed in a bid to combat political inequalities that are prevalent in the British political system.
The report, which evaluates the impact of marginal constituencies on political equality and political participation by social class, among other themes, concludes that Britain’s democracy has become increasingly divided in terms of who is given a political voice and who exercises electoral influence.
During the 2015 general election, less than half of 18–24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of voters over-65, with the divide in voter turnout between the age groups having increased since the 1980s. The divide is also apparent in class-based cleavages with three quarters of registered voters from the upper and middle social classes (AB groups) having voted in 2015 compared to just over half of registered voters who were temporarily or long-term unemployed.
As IPPR point out in the executive summary, in 1987, turnout inequality by class was almost non-existent and age based differences were significantly lower. This suggests that in the last 25 years, older and more affluent groups have been better represented than their younger and poorer counterparts during elections, according to the IPPR.
The findings are evident in results cited in the IPPR report from data by Ipsos Mori after the 2015 elections in which 57% of 18-24 year old said they did not intend to vote compared to only 22% of over-65 year olds who said the same. In terms of socio-economic status, 25% of those in more affluent groups said they would not vote compared to 43% of those who were temporarily or long-term unemployed.
A recent IPPR/YouGov poll investigating unequal electoral participation rates found that 63% of individuals who were temporarily or long-term unemployed felt that democracy served their interests badly, while individuals from the upper and middle social classes were evenly split. IPPR argues that deep-rooted political inequality is compounded by class based disparities in political participation and influence and is undermining the legitimacy and strength of the British democratic system.
The IPPR report also found that the first-past-the-post voting system failed to deliver a parliament that was representative of how the British population voted during the recent 2015 general elections and advocates the adoption of a more proportionate electoral.
It was also found that the 2015 election outcomes were more disproportionate than any election held in the last 30 years with the electoral system having become increasingly disproportionate over time. It offers the examples of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, who won 12.6% and 7.9% of the vote respectively but, in contrast, only 0.2% and 1.2% of the seats. On the other hand, the Scottish National Party which won 4.7% of the votes during the election, won 8.6% of the seats. Similarly, the Green Party received 3.8% of the popular vote yet received the same share of seats as UKIP at 0.2%.
The Conservatives secured 50.9% of the seats despite only gaining just over a third of the vote, 36.9%, underscoring the tendency of the first past the post system to exaggerate the seat share of the largest party. Similar results were found in 2005 when the Labour government returned to power with a 66 seat majority despite only having secured 35.2% of the votes.
The IPPR explain that the disparity between vote share and seat share demonstrates one of the central flaws in the UK’s first past the post electoral system. In other words, it does not translate who people vote for into what they get in terms of representation. A prime example of this was found during the 2015 elections when out of nearly 31 million votes, 63% were cast for losing candidates and 331 of the 650 MPs having been elected with less than 50% of the votes in their constituency and 191 having been elected with less than 30% of the vote. The IPPR argue that without significant electoral reform, these inequalities in political influence will remain embedded in the system.
The report recommends that safe parliamentary seats should be abolished in order to boost voter turnout and modernise Britain’s outdated political system. It explains that voter engagement would rise if more people lived in marginal seats and believed their vote to make a difference to the outcome. Furthermore, the current electoral system effectively gives greater influence in the outcome of the elections to voters living in marginal seats, as their votes are more likely to decide the outcome of the elections. The IPPR propose that the Boundary Commission, which will redraw the constituency map next year, be given a new duty to increase the number of marginal seats and reduce the number of safe ones.
According to the IPPR: “Gerrymandering safe seats out of existence where possible will help increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginal currently have, and as a result it is likely to improve participation rates.”
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Safe seats are a massive burden on our democracy – making so many people feel like it’s not worth voting at all. We wholeheartedly share the IPPR’s goal of reducing the number of safe seats so that we have truly competitive elections – not ones that encourage apathy and disengagement.”
Changes to future elections are already on the cards with the Conservative party pushing ahead with a manifesto pledge to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 although the move, argued to favour the Conservatives, is likely to merely exacerbate the problems identified by the IPPR on current political inequality than address the issue.
This IPPR report comes amid a warning by Lord Falconer, the Shadow Lord Chancellor and the Shadow Secretary of the State for Justice, that “the future of our country is being decided by an increasingly narrow section of society” as 6 million eligible voters are not registered to vote.
Commenting on the change to electoral registration rules and the shortening of the deadline in the move from existing registers to new ones, Lord Falconer explained the influence wielded by older voter who were more likely to be registered to vote; 95% of over-65s are on the electoral register compared to around 70% of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Lord Falconer described the electoral register as “the beating heart of our democracy” and argued that the entire political system runs the risk of being compromised if flawed registers are adopted which omit a significant number of voters.
The problem is further compounded among BME communities who have low voter registration levels compared to the general population, with 78% of Pakistanis and 73% of Bangladeshis having been registered to vote in the 2010 election, around 20% less than the rest of the population.
The IPPR report is an important contribution to the serious issues about making every vote count and every vote equal in future UK elections.