What’s Wrong with the Left: The Mechanisms of Voting and Rigging the System

What’s Wrong with the Left: The Mechanisms of Voting and Rigging the System May 14, 2021

This is part two in my series on the subject. The first started with:

I was asked the other day “what is wrong with the left?” or “where has the left gone wrong?” This is presumably in the context of the UK since this is quite a different political environment to the US, although there are obvious similarities. Let me answer this question in the context of previous general elections and the recent UK local elections. This is a very complicated answer and so I will be necessarily simplifying to a huge degree.

As ever, in philosophy, we need to parse the question a little bit. Wrong for what? Getting into power or in a more abstract, moral, sociological and economic sense? Or, what is wrong with the messaging as opposed to what is wrong with the message? I am going to start concentrating more on the former rather than the latter today, even though they are quite closely connected. Perhaps I might try and lay out my understanding of the latter in a future post.

I spent the first post looking predominantly at how the left struggles to market itself in the UK due to the right owning all the major messaging systems. Here are a few points to add to that piece:

  1. Fake news travels six times faster than truth/accurate news. This favours people who spread disinformation and misinformation, If this happens on the right more, which I claim it does, then this favours the right. See accuracy of claims from the GOP vs Democrats in the US, Trump’s lies (30,573 in four years), and the reliability of the right-wing press in the UK).
  2. Social media. As above, fake news travels faster on social media and favours the right. Facebook’s new algorithm supposedly favours the right. Facebook defended this by saying the right are just way better at using Facebook. See “Why the right wing has a massive advantage on Facebook“.

But today I want to look at some specific issues in the UK that mean, essentially, the left will not get into power in the UK for the foreseeable future. Yes, more depressing content ahead.

Scotland

Scotland has, over the last decade or more, swung decisively away from Labour and into the hands of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP now has some 44 seats in Scotland that they don’t look like ever losing to Labour. Simply put, Labour will struggle to get into power without Scottish representation. Those 44 used to go predominantly to Labour and added to the pot that goes towards the 325 needed to form a majority government (there are 650 MPs).

They would only really do this in the sort of once in a generation landslide victory they got under New Labour and Tony Blair in 1997, romping home with a huge swing after almost 20 years of Tory rule. I just don’t see this happening again given the media landscape and fact that, mired in corruption, Johnson is as popular as he’s ever been. In the same way that Republicans in the US have become immune to Trump’s massive moral shortcomings, lies and outright nonsense, if you want to really like someone in this modern age, don’t let facts or contrary evidence get in your way.

Those 40-odd seats that used to be Labour are now not, and Labour, before getting started, need to pick them up in England or Wales to redress that. Northern Ireland is effectively a different kettle of fish as they have totally different parties. Yes, they might align and go into a coalition (as the Tories bribed the DUP £1 billion to do), but they will not help any main UK party with party seats as the mainstream parties don’t operate there. Sinn Fein refuse to even enter Westminster, so you can forget their vote on anything.

First Past the Post and Splitting the Left Vote

For those of you who don’t know the system, let me briefly explain. Under this system, the person with the most amount of votes, no matter how small that advantage may be, wins the seat for parliamentary election. and those other vcotes are discounted – they mean nothing. Imagine this scenario. There are four parties, The Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens. The Conservative candidate gets 35% of the vote. It turns out, though, that 60% of the people in this constituency absolutely hate this candidate. Which is to say, the majority of people do not want this person to be ruling over them. However, that vote is split amongst the three remaining parties. 30% voted Labour, 25% voted Lib Dem and the remaining 10% voted Green. Most people hate the Conservative candidate, but the Conservative candidate is the first past the post, or the person to receive the most votes in a comparative sense, even if it is only 35%, less than an outright majority.

In a constituency like mine where Conservatives will never, ever lose, what this means is that my vote is completely impotent. It doesn’t go towards anything. I literally might as well not get out of bed in the morning on election day. This is very disempowering and I feel very disenfranchised. What this also means is that, generally speaking, a party like the Lib Dems gets something like 20% of the national vote but 5% of the MPs in Parliament (I am using these figures illustratively). They are not being represented proportionally in government.

There are many different ways of delivering an alternative voting system with different advantages and disadvantages (and there are some advantages to the first past the post system in making it slightly simpler to deliver localised power). You can take your pick of the most effective system. But it is interesting to note that the only countries that have this system are colonial countries historically colonised by involved with the UK. No new country that has developed an electoral system themselves in the last hundred years has taken on first past the post, as far as I am aware. This is because it is pretty much the worst democratic system for representing people’s views within a given country.

But since it benefits the main parties in power, and this does include Labour to some extent, it is unlikely ever to be changed. And due to this, the Conservatives are massively advantaged.

The First Past the Post voting system hamstrings the left routinely (particularly Greens and Lib Dems, as well as the hard right) because the left are fractured far more than the right. The left vote is splintered, shared amongst Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru (in Wales). Now with the demise of UKIP (or now Reform), the Tories have a consolidated vote in a single right-wing party. And first past the post massively favours the right under this scenario.

One comment after the last election to me was:

Results aside. Let’s do some number crunching comparing last night to 2017. LIBDEMS up almost 1 million votes – you lose a seat. CON 200,000 votes, that’ll be a 67 seat majority please. WTF. Broken. What’s worse, why would a party that this system works for change it…I despair.

Edit: The increase in the green vote from 2017 to 2019 as of 7am was MORE than the increase in the Tory vote.

in 2019, we had a huge Tory seat increase that was simply not representative of the actual national vote share. Back in 2015, UKIP won 12% of the vote, secured 4 million votes, and returned a single MP. That is 49 MPs denied to UKIP by a voting system that is not fit for purpose The Greens, almost 2 million votes for 1 MP. The SNP? They needed only 56,00o votes per MP. UKIP got 3 times the vote than the SNP for 1 MP, and the SNP got 50 MPs.

This had particular impact for the Lib Dems, who increased their vote share and had a net loss of 1 MP! This is all you need to know on proportional representation with regard to this election – MPs, vote share, votes:

Conservative Party                364        43.6%   13,941,200

Labour Party                          203        32.2%   10,292,054

Scottish National Party        48          3.9%      1,242,372

Liberal Democrats                 11          11.5%     3,675,342

Green Party                             1            2.7%      864,743

The Greens and Lib Dems should have had 91 MPs. These were huge Remain parties in terms of Brexit. They got 12 MPs. This should be the headline. The Tories get a thumping majority of seats with less than 44% of the vote.

The Americans have similar problems both in Statewide elections and the Electoral College. They will never not have a two-party system (the least representative for of democracy you can imagine) until their systems are changed. But First past the post is at its best in a two-party system. As soon as you have a greater choice, you even more need an alternative vote system of some kind of proportional representation for a representative democracy. The US needs it to kick start viable parties outside the Democrat/GOP dynamic.

This is why  I advocate a progressive alliance across the leftist parties. See A Progressive Alliance Is the Answer to Snap General Election and Asking for –  No, Demanding a Progressive Alliance.

The Government Is Rigging the System

I’m going to come on to talk about this in a little bit more depth with the new voter suppression regulation that the government is presently attempting to bring onto the statute books. However, let me just link something to the first past the post electoral system. We have a more representative voting system for our regional mayors. This is a ranked voting system that allows you to give second preferences.

I wonder what happened in the recent mayoral elections last week? It turns out that Labour did far better in the mayoral elections than they did in local council elections. In fact, in some cases, they had landslide victories. So when a representative electoral system is employed, Labour appear to do better:

So what are the government doing with this knowledge? Of course, the Conservatives are now trying to change the rules so that future mayoral elections are no longer administered with an alternative vote system but will return to first past the post. They are rigging the system, and not for democratic benefit.

Ministers are pressing ahead with changes to electoral law that could make it easier for Conservatives to win future mayoral elections, as Labour claimed 11 of the 13 posts being contested across England.

The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, has already unveiled plans to switch all future English mayoral elections from the existing supplementary vote system – in which the public ranks their two favourite candidates – to the first past the post system used in elections to the House of Commons.

Prof Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said analysis of Thursday’s polls suggested this change could open a potential route to victory for the Tories in cities such as London.

“It’s likely that first past the post would make it somewhat easier for the Conservatives to win if they could come up with a really good candidate,” he said.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan won the London mayoral contest comfortably against his Conservative rival, Shaun Bailey, once voters’ second preferences were taken into account. But Khan beat Bailey by only 40% to 35% on first preference votes, as some leftwing former Labour voters shifted to the Greens and other smaller parties.

Travers said Labour faced the joint challenge of finding a message that lets them take on the Conservatives at a national level while also stopping leftwing voters in major cities moving to the Greens.

“We’re back to the usual problem of the fragmentation of the left, while the centre-right vote is much better at holding itself together,” he said.

This makes me angry. It is an absolute disgrace.

Deunionisation

In 2015, the Conservatives launched the biggest crackdown on unions in 30 years. More rigging the system…

The working-class, union-member voters have always been exceptionally political. Trade union membership has fallen from a high of 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2015-2016. That is massively impactful. At the end of the day, Labour’s core voters are – now, think about the name here – workers and the working class. They are funded by the trade unions. So when the Tories are being funded to a greater and greater extent by billionaires and big, dark money corporates, Labour depends massively on trade unions. And with only less than half the trade union membership than in the 70s, and with manufacturing being decimated in the UK’s mature economy (and set to be further so with Brexit), Labour and the left are in trouble.

But given the funding for the Conservative party, is it any wonder why (and this is the same in America) rules and regulations are consistently changed to the disadvantage of trade unions and workers in general, and to the advantage of those holding the capital strings? See the article linked at the start of this section.

I reported on this some years back in terms of teaching whereby successive Conservative governments have successfully weakened union power in an attempt to destroy the collective-bargaining abilities of teachers. With the academisation campaign and the push for free schools, this is decimated teachers’ bargaining power (see my piece here for details). This is why stories like this are so prevalent: “‘No one questioned it’: teacher’s tribunal victory shines light on unfettered academy powers” – teachers sacked for being unions reps.

What happened in the 2019 election is that Labour membership and voters had shifted from the unionised working class to middle-class intellectuals. Yes, London looks safe for Labour, but in their working-class northern heartlands, they have lost. This started happening with Blair and New Labour where they courted the middle ground and appealed to the classic swing voter. Now, we see a very interesting demographic shift going on. As some commentators have said, Labour need to have a really long, hard look at themselves to work out who they are, and where they go.

This is very much the foremost problem both within the Labour Party (an existential crisis) and within their electorate, and I will look at this in the next article in this series.

Voter Suppression: The New American Import

I have had a very angry couple of days. I’ve had a number of rants in different places, most recently in our Tippling Philosophers’ Zoom call. The American political system is nothing one should want to emulate. I actually think it is fundamentally broken in a number of different ways, many similar to those I have espoused already. But emulating it we are. We are taking all the bad parts, all the ideas of voter suppression, and enacting them. Boris Johnson wanted to be like Trump and the Conservatives appear to want to be like the GOP:

Proposals to introduce mandatory voter ID, as unveiled in today’s Queen’s speech, are a dangerous attack on our democratic rights that could lead to millions of legitimate voters being locked out of the polling station on election day. It is estimated that implementing the proposals could cost up to £20m per election, a hefty price tag for an unnecessary policy, and an expensive distraction from the real issues that affect our democracy and our country more widely.

On the face of it, requiring voters to show ID at polling stations may seem like a sensible policy. A necessary step, even, to ensure that those casting a vote have the right to do so. But while the government claims the potential for fraud is there, the evidence it exists is hard to find.

Widespread voter fraud at the ballot box would be easy to see. We’d find hundreds of people turning up to vote on polling day to find a ballot had already been cast in their name – yet few such claims exist.

Of the 595 alleged cases of electoral fraud investigated by the police in 2019 only 33 related to voter impersonation at a polling station – that is just 0.000057% of the over 58m votes cast in all the elections that took place that year.

Quite apart from the absence of any widespread voter impersonation, there are clear problems with forcing people to produce ID before they vote. According to official figures, 3.5 million people do not have access to photo ID in the UK and 11 million don’t have a passport or a driving licence. Unlike most countries where ID is required to vote, the UK has no free or low-cost ID option. In fact, in many of the countries used by the government as examples of successful voter-ID schemes, an ID is actually mandatory already, meaning everyone automatically has what they need to cast a ballot.

Many of the groups who are likely to be affected are already among society’s most marginalised. Earlier this year, three leading US civil rights groups criticised the UK government’s plans, highlighting how ID laws disproportionally affect people from poorer and marginalised communities.

It’s no wonder that opposition to voter ID has brought together a wide coalition, from homeless charities, groups representing elderly people and LGBT+ campaigners, to democracy organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society; each concerned that these proposals could shut out millions of legitimate voters from the ballot box.

Even senior conservatives are opposed to the proposals, with former Brexit secretary David Davis describing the plans as an “illiberal solution in pursuit of a nonexistent problem” and urging the government to drop its “pointless proposals”.

And Davis is right: this policy is a solution in search of a problem. Voting is safe and secure in the UK – the government has said so itself.

My American readers will be all too familiar with this, seen most recently in rule changes in Georgia and Florida, and on the books for future changes, with something like 404 proposed bills in 48 state legislatures, if I recall correctly.

This is the first of many such attempted changes in the UK, no doubt.

Conclusion

We saw the last piece that the media landscape is a huge hurdle for the left in this empowering them from getting their message out. However, things are worse than that, Since the political systems are institutionally and organisationally set up to disadvantage Labour and the left. And we haven’t even got on to talking about the actual message of the left. So if there is any particular contextual weakness with that message – say Kier Starmer has failed to elucidate it clearly enough – this will be hugely exacerbated by all these other mechanisms and variables. In other words, the Conservatives have a huge privilege, a huge systemic advantage that gives them a leg up in every single election and every single level, irrespective of what their or the left’s message might be.

 


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