Changes in the way we vote operate on a geological scale in this country. The ‘40 shilling franchise’, that gave the vote to all men in England and Wales who were property freeholders valued at or above 40 shillings, was introduced under Henry VI in 1430 and was not overturned until the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832, a wait of 402 years!
185 years’ later, on 30th October, 2017, there was a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on the merits of Proportional Representation. It was inspired by a public petition of one hundred thousand electronic signatures via email. Petitions to the King in England were introduced under the reign of Edward I around 1275, another ancient method. Yet, they were not commonly used by the general public on any large scale until the Chartists’ pursuit of the People’s Charter. After Peterloo, which will commemorate its 200th anniversary on 16th August, 2019, the Chartists attempted to gain universal suffrage with the 6 demands of the People’s Charter and brought forward several petitions to the House of Commons. These included millions of signatures, written on vast sheaves of paper and carried to the House of Commons by armies of volunteers that stretched several miles along the route to Parliament. These marches were major events in themselves, bringing out tens or hundreds of thousands of working people, waved on by large street crowds, still disenfranchised by the 1832 Act that gave the vote only to around 5% of the population (adding the capitalist class to the landowners). Each petition resulted in a debate in Parliament but, each was summarily dismissed by a ruling elite that would not relinquish power to those that they considered beneath them. The last Chartist Petition under their ‘leader’, Feargus O’Connor, was in 1848 and the cry for universal suffrage was defeated with no further extension to the vote until 1867.
Move forward 150 years and the result of the latest petition will, in the short term, be no change and no parliamentary debate on the floor of the House of Commons but the arguments for PR that were heard in Westminster Hall clearly outflanked those (mainly C/conservative) opponents.
It was not just the voting system but it is clear that democracy itself was being debated just as it was 200 years ago when Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was speaking to a crowd of one hundred thousand in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The resultant charge of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that murdered around twenty and injured hundreds was named ‘Peterloo’ to resonate with the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
It is now ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system that is on trial. FPTP has been our system for election to the Commons from at least 1430 but where, as the six demands of the People’s Charter of 1837 showed, democracy was only available to a few. In the 180 years after the People’s Charter was written, gradual changes have been made so that, once registered, every citizen of eighteen years and over has the right to vote in a local constituency, of which there are 650. The candidate with the most votes wins a constituency – a situation that remains the same as in 1832 (or even 1430) except that the votes are now by secret ballot. The winner of most ‘seats’ has a majority in the House of Commons. What could be wrong with that?
What is wrong is that ‘Winner-takes-all’, constituency-by-constituency, disenfranchises the vast majority of voters. The Electoral Reform Society calculated in 2015 that 74% of votes cast in the General Election were completely wasted as they are either votes for the losing party or votes for the winning party that exceeds the amount needed to win. Since I was first able to vote (at the 1974 General Election, when living in Manchester, when the Party I supported, the Liberals, gained 19.3% of the votes and only 13 seats!), I have not, at any General Election since, believed that my vote counted for anything – my preferred candidate has always lost! This is a form of disenfranchisement that results in reduced voter turnout, tactical voting that requires voters to vote for a second party to unseat their least favoured, protest voting in bye-elections and referendums (the Brexit vote has been viewed as, at least in part, such a protest) and a sense of voter irrelevance. So, despite having the ability to place a cross against a political party, the feeling is that the action is useless. At a time when the traditional two-party system is under siege, this results in the largest two parties obtaining government with lower votes than ever. It is a reason that Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) are more popular than before because people believe that the political party system is not one where their vote counts and that pressure points have to be obtained through other means.
Of course, it is even worse than this because many of the individual constituencies are in areas where particular parties have had complete control for many years: Labour in inner-city heartlands, Tories in rural areas. Voting in these areas is akin to the rotten boroughs of the 1820’s so that anointed individuals take up their seats without the need to strive for election.
This leads to parties putting their efforts primarily in those constituencies that are properly contestable, where the luck of location means that more than one party has a chance of success. In these seats, just a change of a few percentage points can mean success. It can be easily argued that just a few thousand people in the whole country decide general elections. The fight for votes in the UK comes down to far less than 5% of the population, the situation that existed prior to 1832.
Of course, no system is perfect. The UK needs a system where every vote can count but there is a desire in this country to hang onto constituency representatives that work for that constituency. That entails a well-thought out plan for a form of proportional representation. The Jenkins Commission in 1997 produced a system that attempted to combine the benefits of constituency and proportionality but, after support from the Labour opposition, came to nothing when Labour gained power.
Will the UK ever achieve an improved form of democracy when those in power get there through FPTP? Is there enough pressure from the public that will drive politicians to proportional representation and change the system that has endured since 1430? Perhaps we need a charter for democracy in 2017. The People’s Charter of 1837 did not bring the Chartists universal suffrage but all except one of its demands (annual elections) have been met. What the People’s Charter did not envisage was that better forms of communication (even O’Connor’s Northern Star newspaper was no match for today’s online communication revolution) would engender the ability of so many viewpoints to be held and argued over that leads to the increased number of political parties. We now need a voting system that re-enfranchises all the people and also motivates people to become active participants in the election process.
We need a People’s Charter for Fair Voting.