Why are big political parties so similar?

In a recent Sunday Times article, Jamie Oliver said that said that although he did not support UKIP he loved the fact that the party was “stirring it up”.

I expect a lot of people feel the same way. One reason for the huge success of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) at the May local elections in England and Wales is that it offers change, at a time when the mainstream political parties all seem to be doing the same thing.

What a terrible situation, for people to be feeling so disenfranchised that they welcome the success of a party they don’t even support, just because it offers them a small feeling of influence in the political system, a system that seems to have been hijacked by wealthy business interests.

If the political parties are all saying and doing more or less the same thing, it effectively disenfranchises the voter. Although there are many smaller parties whose policies are very different from the three mainstream parties, they don’t have the slightest chance of achieving power – so what’s the point of voting for them? It would just be a waste of your vote. No wonder many people have given up on voting altogether – except in those rare times when a smaller party like UKIP seems to be in with a fighting chance. At those times, even people who might disagree with a lot of what that small party stands for might support it, simply because it offers the possibility of change.

But the chances are that even if a small party does achieve power, like the Liberal Democrats at the last general election, it will be forced to make such compromises that the policies that made it stand out in the first place will just evaporate. How depressing.

However, hope is at hand. Things could be different. Take the example of Scotland under devolution.

Why Scotland is different

Proportional representation is used for voting in Scottish elections – the partially proportional “additional member system” (AMS) or the “single transferable vote” system (STV) for local government elections.

This makes a big difference. The Scottish voting system gives smaller parties a much greater chance of achieving real power and growing into big influential parties, without having to water down the policies that made them stand out.

It also explains why UKIP made only very small gains in the three Scottish by-elections that have been held this year.

Under the “first past the post” system used in England and Wales, anyone who votes for a small party knows their vote is likely to be wasted – unless, like UKIP, one of these smaller parties is experiencing a huge surge in support.

But under the Scottish voting systems, small political parties and independent candidates have a much greater chance of winning seats. This means people can vote for a small party knowing that that party has a fair chance of achieving power, even if there isn’t an unusually large surge of support for it. If people in Scotland are feeling the same way as Jamie Oliver, they don’t have to rely on UKIP to “stir things up”.

It also means the Scottish political parties don’t have to keep their policies in the amorphous “centre ground” in order to achieve political power and influence. They don’t have to appeal to the “lowest common denominator” and achieve a huge groundswell of support in order to achieve even the slightest chance of power, as parties do under the “first past the post” system in England and Wales and in the United States, where the “first past the post” system is also used.

Despite the huge gains UKIP made in the local elections, they have little chance of achieving any real power in a general election. They are more likely to split the right-wing vote, increasing Labour’s chances. This is what happened in David Cameron’s constituency of Witney at the council elections. Winning candidate Laura Price (Labour) got 756 votes. The UKIP candidate won 746 votes and the Conservative candidate was pushed into third place with 697 votes.

If the AMS voting system had been used, right-leaning voters who wanted to protest or vote for a party that offered a clearer choice would have been able to vote for UKIP without contributing to a split in the right-wing vote. They could have made UKIP their first constituency choice and Conservative their second, regional choice. Or they could have done it the other way round. UKIP would then have a greater chance of achieving power.

This works for left-wing as well as right-wing parties. If the AMS system had been used for UK general elections in the 1980s, when the SDP-Liberal Alliance were briefly in the ascendancy, it might have prevented the left-wing vote being split.

Voting systems that are based on proportional representation put more political power in the hands of the electorate, the voters. Political parties are beholden to voters, not to business lobbyists, as they are under first past the post.

What difference does all this political theory make to my life?

A considerable difference. Free prescriptions and tuition fees are two things. The Small Business Bonus Scheme is another. These things have come about not because the SNP is more left-leaning than Labour, but because politicians in the Scottish Government are more beholden to the voters than to big business lobbyists. And that’s because the Scottish voting system offers voters greater representation.

Unfortunately in UK general elections, Scots are still stuck with first past the post.

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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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