On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act passed into law, extending voting rights to some women and all men over 21 for the first time. Until then, around 70% of the adult population were not allowed to vote.
One hundred years on, and its high time we reflected on the unfinished business of our democracy. Whilst we’re fortunate to live in a country where the government is subject to popular opinion, our current electoral system of First Past the Post, means that technically, thousands of us have a vote that goes to waste. In the 2017 general election, around 68% of votes had absolutely zero impact on the result.
We have a government which is elected on a minority of the vote, held hostage by a tiny reactionary membership and small group of hard Brexiteer MPs and propped up by the miniscule DUP. Yet still, they seem hell bent on forcing the most extreme, damaging form on Brexit on an unwilling public. In the last 100 years, the progressive vote has been split between Labour and Liberal parties – previously the SDP and more recently the Greens and the SNP. This cedes power to an unrepresentative Tory government which most people don’t want. In the 2017 election, comfortably under half (42.45%) of voters actually voted for Theresa May’s government. That means over half actively rejected it – not even accounting for the 30% who didn’t turn out to the ballot boxes.
In places like the South West of England, Labour has seen a huge increase in membership in the past few years – arguably thanks to the mobilising power of Jeremy Corbyn. Our members there understand better than anybody how the current voting system leaves them hugely underrepresented and pretty much discounts their votes – as well as polarising the nation and leaving people more divided than ever. To be fair, Conservative pockets of support in the North face the same problems; wasted votes and no representation.
That’s why I’m going to be supporting Make Votes Matter’s ‘Hungry for Democracy’ campaign tomorrow, along with the likes of Stephen Kinnock, Peter Tatchell, and Jonathan Bartley. Along with a fantastic team of activists, we’re hunger striking to commemorate the sacrifices of the Suffragists and Suffragettes 100 years ago – recognising the severity of what campaigners went through to gain the vote. We’re calling for Proportional Representation, so that seats actually match votes and everyone has a vote that matters equally. That’s real democracy – and it’s been a long time coming.
After all, our most similar neighbours in northern Europe and Scandinavia all have genuinely proportional electoral systems. Are they any less well governed or less successful than we are? I can guarantee that most people would say the opposite is the case. Scandinavian countries top the charts for freedom, prosperity, strong public services and much, much more. Germany is the real powerhouse of the European Union. Indeed, all of our European neighbours with proportional systems are arguably more successful, more functional and even more equal societies than in the UK. Whilst the Germans may be embroiled in the longest and most arduous coalition talks for decades, they still have a functioning government and a booming economy – which is certainly more than can be said for our government.
The major parties, Labour included, have been tiptoeing around the issue of electoral reform for too long now. We worry, unnecessarily, that proportional representation will ‘let in’ smaller parties and harm our electoral prospects. This shouldn’t be what electoral reform is about – we shouldn’t base our voter system on organised interests and what works for the big boys of British politics, but on what is fair, representative, and conducive to real, progressive democracy. That’s why I’m supporting Make Votes Matter on Tuesday.
Ben Bradshaw is the Labour MP for Exeter