The dangers of disenfranchisement

What does Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and boring pop music have to do with democracy, you might be wondering?

First of all, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century. Yet if only Scottish votes had been taken into account she would never have been prime minister at all. The last time the Conservative Party had a majority in Scotland, and the only time since 1945, was in 1955.

If only Scottish votes had been taken into account, Thatcher would never have been prime minister.

Scotland has been ruled by governments that the majority of its population did not vote for, for more than 34 of the 68 years since 1945.

The “first past the post” system that is used to elect the UK government effectively disenfranchises significant sections of the British population. Under the “first past the post” system, voters can vote for only one candidate, and many votes are “wasted”. Location is very important in determining whether your vote counts, and smaller parties have little chance of making an impact.

The additional member system (AMS), a combination of first past the post and proportional representation, is used in elections for the Scottish Parliament and for the National Assembly for Wales. Voters get two votes, the first one for a constituency MSP, and the second for a party. Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies, each electing one MSP. In addition, there are eight parliamentary regions, and each region returns seven regional MSPs. These 56 regional MSPs are known as “additional members”.

AMS offers an increased chance for smaller parties to achieve representation in parliament. The first vote, for the 73 constituencies, is conducted using the first past the post system – ie, the candidate with the most votes wins. They do not need to get more than half of the votes in order to win.

The second vote is carried out using a proportional system that takes account of the number of seats that a party has already won under the first vote. The number of regional (second) votes gained is divided by the number of seats already won in that region, plus one. The party that has the highest number of votes under this calculation, gains an additional seat. This calculation is repeated until all the seats have been allocated.

The Electoral Reform Society has more information on various types of voting systems.

The AMS system gives voters the opportunity to vote for two different parties. Under the AMS system, votes for smaller political parties are less likely to be “wasted”. If smaller parties don’t achieve any constituency seats, they could be in with a chance of picking up seats in the regional voting rounds. And with each voter getting two votes, if they think a vote for a small party would be wasted in the constituency vote, they can use their first vote for a mainstream party and their second vote for a smaller party. This enhances the influence of each voter and gives smaller political parties a greater chance to make an impact and grow. It means that “safe seats” become a lot less safe, because voters can afford to take more risks with one, or both of their votes.

I believe this more representative system has allowed and encouraged the Scottish Government to enact policies desired by the majority of the electorate, such as free prescriptions and tuition fees, instead of being bound by the influence of lobbyists. This is one of the main reasons why I support independence for Scotland.

I also believe electoral reform for the rest of the UK is of crucial importance. Politicians are increasingly losing the respect of the electorate. “Voter apathy” is often said to keep people away from polling stations, but I think “voter apathy” should really be called “voter disenfranchisement”. Many people have given up on the electoral system – they think, often correctly, that their vote won’t count. Another common complaint is that people think none of the politicians represent them.

When lots of people feel politically impotent, it can lead to social unrest.

I think this is changing in Scotland, mainly as a result of the proportional representative voting systems – yet many Scots don’t even realise how different the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament is from the Westminster electoral system. That’s because they’ve given up. They realise that time and time again, the party that they vote for in UK elections does not get into power, and that the policies they vote for are not implemented. When lots of people feel politically impotent, it can lead to social unrest.

Instead of trying to manipulate people’s minds by trying to control the media, political parties should be listening to people and helping them to get more engaged in the political process. It’s worked for the SNP in Scotland, despite some of the other political parties trying to portray their success as Alex Salmond having somehow brainwashed the Scottish people.

They do this at their peril. The electorate isn’t as stupid or as childlike as these politicians seem to think.

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  1. Why are all political parties so similar? | Democracy isn't working

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  • About this site

    Our democracy in the UK is deeply flawed. Under the "first past the post" system, which is used to elect the Westminster House of Commons, the majority of UK voters are not represented in Parliament by the party they voted for.
    This website is not calling for anarchy or revolution, but for a fairer and more democratic parliamentary system.

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