The illusion of British democracy: apathy, PR, and the media

Democracy

This article is non-partisan. It is simply an argument for a more democratic system in the United Kingdom.

Britain’s political left woke up this morning (or stayed up sobbing all night) to find that the Conservative party would not only remain in power for another five years, but probably achieve this with an overall majority. The daisy-chain of restraint that was Nick Clegg in the previous parliament won’t even be necessary anymore. Somehow, David Cameron’s party convinced over 50% of the country that they deserved another term in office.

 

Oh, wait, no he didn’t.

 

In that link, the BBC election coverage estimated a 66% voter turnout, up exactly 1% from the previous election. Scottish turnout increased massively, whilst British turnout actually decreased. What does this mean for the UK General Election results? Nothing. We have a Tory “majority” for the next 5 years. What does this mean for the authenticity of British democracy? Everything. 

 

If 66% of an electorate of over 46 million voted, and the Conservative party won 11 million of those votes, how many people didn’t vote for the Conservatives?

 

About 35 million people.

 

Let me spell that out again; the conservatives got 11 million votes out of an electorate of 46 million. And we now have a majority government. That’s less than the 15 million voters who didn’t even bother. The “majority” winners of the British election were 4 million less in number than the non-voting electorate.

 

This raises 3 extremely important issues for the British parliamentary system. First, can a country of 64 million people be ruled by a political party elected by 11 million people and still be called a democracy? Second, in an election where two parties have a relatively equal amount of individual votes but an actual difference of 55 parliamentary seats (Greens, 1.1 million, 1 MP; SNP, 1.4 million, 56 MPs), and where 4 million UKIP voters are represented by just one seat, can we really say that the people’s voices are being adequately represented? Finally, what does the 2015 UK General Election teach us about the role the media has to play in influencing voters both here and abroad? We will answer each of these questions and, in doing so, demonstrate the ludicrously undemocratic democracy we find ourselves a part of this morning.

 

“One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”  - Frank Underwood, House of Cards

 

Voter Apathy in the United Kingdom: Delegitimisation of the Electoral System

In the 2001 general election, turnout fell to under 60% from 71% in 1997. It increased to 65% in 2010. In the European Elections last year, in which Nigel Farage’s UKIP were the first party other than Tory or Labour to win a British election since 1906, only 33% of voters turned out. And, yesterday, turnout increased by 1% compared to the previous general election.

What is all the more concerning is that the lead up to this election featured a particularly important focus on voter apathy, particularly among the 18-24 year old demographic. Russell Brand’s interview with the charmingly abrasive Jeremy Paxman brought the disillusionment felt by many young voters into the political discourse. Though he finally rescinded his call to not vote - after the registration deadline had already passed - we were also exposed to enlightening arguments from students and other young people detailing the many ways one can be politically active without voting. One such article quotes Brie Rodger Lowery, of Change.org, saying that “What we are seeing among young people is the very opposite of apathy, but it exists outside the narrow structures of Westminster politics.”

 

This is all well and good, and people should be commended for engaging in political activism on days other than election day. The people who are protesting, demonstrating, writing and filming in order to affect change deserve our utmost respect, and even gratitude. I will never deny the importance of “non-electoral civic participation”. Can’t grassroots activism and electoral engagement exist in parallel?

 

The historical significance of the vote is clearly lost on those who defend the practice of not-voting. It is not emotive, but imperative, to recall the literal deaths suffered by so many in order to win the right to vote. The right to have an equal say in who gets elected to run the country you live in. Personally I find it baffling whenever I encounter anyone who “doesn’t vote”. If you don’t use your right to vote, then the people you have spent years demonstrating against will just keep winning, because their supporters are voting. There does not seem to be any convincing reason to perpetuate this dichotomy, and if we ever needed evidence that voter apathy is a bad thing, we finally have it, delivered to us on a silver platter from London’s Guildhall banquet when David Cameron gave his austerity speech on a golden throne.

 

As things stand, we cannot claim with any sort of conviction that an election based on a 66% turnout is sufficiently democratic to be considered legitimate. It has been observed that though turnout increases in states that make voting compulsory, the spread is not more representative (based on gender and education), and voters’ “sense of duty” to the political process even decreases. Therefore we must think long and hard about ways to engage the electorate, even if just enough to get them to spoil their ballot (an altogether more effective practice than non-participation).

 

From my own perspectives on a democracy, Anything less than 90% turnout among the electorate would cause doubts as to the legitimacy of an election. I say this with full knowledge that the UK has never achieved this. But without the near full participation of the electorate any “result” cannot reasonably be constituted as democratic. At the very least, if a candidate or party does not achieve a majority of the popular vote (as opposed to a majority of seats), whatever the turnout, then how can their appointment as a ‘majority’ government be truly legitimate? This brings us nicely to the second question.

 

Electoral Reform: Essentialism of Proportional Representation (PR)

I’ve heard it said today that one of the silver linings of this election is that the First Past the Post (FPTP) system ensured somehow that the 4 million British citizens who voted UKIP only have 1 seat representing them in Parliament. Is it also a silver lining that 1.4 million SNP voters now have 56?

 

To those who intend to analyse the electoral system with any semblance of integrity, both of these facts are tragedies. FTPT is inherently undemocratic and works to maintain the political status quo through reducing the diversity of views presented in Westminster, and enticing voters to vote tactically to keep a ‘worse’ party out rather than for a party they actually believe in - contributing to voter apathy. The Green Party, UKIP and Lib Dems combined have approximately 5 million votes and 10 MPs. The Labour party received almost double the amount of votes, but received twenty-three times the amount of seats.

 

The allocation of seats does not match the way the public votes. The ‘efficient distribution of voters’ across constituencies should never be something which benefits a party in a truly democratic society. The only legitimate democracy is a system of proportional representation which ensures fair representation and prevents a strategically located minority from gaining control of the parliament. This Mirror article has worked out what this election would look like under such a system:

 

Party Actual result P.R. Difference
Conservatives 330 240 -90
Labour 232 200 -32
Lib Dem 8 50 +42
SNP 56 32 -24
Ukip 1 82 +81

 

The article acknowledges the simplistic methodology used to work this out but it already appears more fairly representative. The Conservative party would still have the most seats, but by no means would it be a majority, and only 40 more than Labour. The fear for the left is of course the possibility of a Conservative-UKIP-Lib Dem coalition trumping a Labour-SNP alliance with the Greens (who would have 24 MPs). These fears are warranted, and perhaps inevitable if there are no acceptable ways to legislate against ‘teaming-up’ (and I’m not sure there are). Nevertheless, it would undoubtedly be more democratic. If the right-of-centre parties outnumber their opposites in a PR system then a right-controlled parliament is the more democratic one.

 

The diversification of ideas is the most important purpose of democracy. Numerous additional steps need to be taken in electoral (and other institutional) reform to dismantle the monopoly on democracy onto which Labour and Conservatives hold so dearly, but the transition to PR is the essential first step to that end.

 

Politics of misinformation: The role of the media in ideological warfare

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It’s worth pointing out that we were already given the opportunity for electoral reform to become a reality in 2011. But this opportunity was less of a referendum and more of an indoctrination. For a start, the nature of the referendum - proposing a switch to the Alternative Vote system, which even Clegg described as a “miserable little compromise” - moved public focus away from attacking the status quo to considering the worth of an alternative that even reformists didn’t think worthy. The Sun, The Mail, The Telegraph, The Times, and The Express, with a combined weekly readership of 37.8 million, all urged a No vote, presumably because a more proportional form of representation would threaten their privileged position of influence in society. Accordingly, they used the fresh tuition fee hatred of Clegg to associate him with the campaign and detriment the Yes cause. In the wake of the Lib Dems’ stunningly poor electoral performance, its ironic that the media used anger at breaking one promise to make them achieve even less.

The primary course of attack from the No campaign was that the switch would cost £250 million, and advertisements along these lines were launched in regional newspapers all over the country. Lets deconstruct this figure. £82 million was estimated as the cost to hold the referendum, which would have applied whatever the outcome. Another £130 million was slyly added on for the cost of switching to an electronic voting system, which is not used by Australia, who are the biggest country that use AV. This leaves the realistic figure at roughly 10% the size of the propagandistic figure.

 

Take a look at the adverts that were placed above (see also he needs bulletproof vests and she needs a new cardiac facility). Such a strongly emotive argument for such a politically important issue is frankly shameful, and is representative of a culture where facts can be smothered in the dead of the night by subversive manipulations of our emotional tendencies. Putting the £250 million into context, we can observe that it is 1.25% of the estimated cost of Cameron’s committal to the renewal of trident (£20bn, a figure that doesn’t even include annual running costs). This is a perfect example of how the same piece of information can be manipulated for opposing ideological benefit. The most disturbing aspect of it all is that once the result had been decided, Blunkett was happy to admit this figure was fabricated, and he epitomised the commonplace nature of media manipulation in blasé style:

 

We are in the middle of an election campaign. People in elections use made-up figures.

 

Worrying times.

 

Arguably, the key battleground of this election has been the economy. Whether you agree or disagree with Conservative economic policy, there is no doubt that Osborne’s claims that Labour overspending made spending cuts necessary, as well as his quickness in associating recent economic growth with austerity measures (statistics perhaps suggest otherwise) placed the idea in the populace’s minds. Labour’s weakness in rapidly refuting this rhetoric, coupled with the enduring power of internalised information against counter arguments, allowed the Tories to control economic discourse, which is arguably what won them the election so convincingly.

 

Of course, in a majority Tory-controlled media, it was never going to be easy for Ed. The shocking front page from the Sun on the eve of the election sums up what he was up against. Portions of the media jumped to Ed’s defence (#jesuised for a fun example), but I think the key thing we have to realise about ideological warfare in the media is that it is just that: warfare. Wars consist of, apart from violence, two opposing sides whose leaders maximise positive perceptions of the in-group and negative perceptions of the outgroup. Crucially, neither camp sees each other’s side of the story. How many of us read both the Guardian and the Sun, or the Independent and the Daily Mail? Confirmation bias is present in all of us, and with an increasingly editorialised media, no-one is being sold the truth. We have to accept that we live in a culture where the media is king of political discourse; and while within the population there is diversification of ideas, most individuals perceive only one version of events, one monologue. Only when diversification occurs within every newspaper and every TV station can we move away from divisive democracy and political apathy, and towards productive, progressive dialogue. In short, the country will suffer until this free press frees minds.

 

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This article was co-written by Peter Collins and Jordan Raine.

 

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