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Does My Vote Matter?

The United Kingdom has a general election coming up; many people - like me - are fed up with Tory governance for the last 13 years and want change. But who should we vote for instead? The UK's de facto two-party system sees power tossed between the Conservatives and Labour, leaving little room for an alternative. But an alternative is what I want. 

We use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system in the UK to elect our national government. It's a straightforward system: the candidate who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected. Its simplicity is one of the principal reasons why FPTP has been retained in the UK. It was first introduced in its modern form by the Representation of the People Act 1948. It seems to have worked up to this point, so why bother changing it?

Well, in action, an FPTP system might look like this: 

Party A - 42% of the vote

Party B - 37% of the vote

Party C - 21% of the vote

Party A is elected because they received the most votes and are therefore, on paper, the most desirable party. Yet, I would argue that this system only works superficially and is unfair, as 58% of voters did not vote for Party A.

This is its main issue; we end up with minority governments, like Thersa May's conservatives in 2017 or Boris Johnson's government in 2019. Neither party had the population on side, so most would have been disappointed in the results. If you do not vote for the winning party and that party does not even represent the majority, your vote is rendered virtually meaningless, and the process is undemocratic. At best, a vote for the second biggest party will allow them to scrutinise the elected government better, but they have little power.

The system needs serious reform in order for it to be fair. One of the oft-suggested alternatives is a move to Proportional Representation (PR); whilst more complex, it embodies democracy and ensures each person's vote always matters. Under this system, Party A would get 42% of the seats, the actual number they received. Additionally, according to YouGov polling, people in the UK have favoured PR over FPTP for years now. However, proportional representation is far from the best system as you are often left with ineffective and squabbling coalition governments. The last coalition in the UK, Cameron-Clegg 2010, was deeply unpopular.

A reasonable voting system would be Single Transferable Vote (STV). Whilst similar to proportional representation, it is more effective. Instead of just one vote, you have the option to rank your choices. This would give you, as the voter, more choices; One could still vote for a single candidate or rank them in order of preference. This eliminates the need for tactical voting and is a far more democratic solution. Although this does not definitively solve the issue of weak or ineffective coalition governments, it can abate the issue as providing options allows for a more definitive ranking of parties nationally. 

In the 2019 General Election, just 67.3% of eligible voters decided it was worthwhile to go to the polls – though under our current system, it is hard to blame them. British citizens live in a country where, despite their best efforts, we don't see change. Because of FPTP, there is a significant chance that one's vote is not worth anything, leading to political apathy. It is a democratic recipe for disaster. Not only did most people not vote for the party in power, but because the system does not incentivise you to vote, we're seeing upwards of 30% of the eligible population not voting at all. 

This is why we need electoral reform in the UK; FPTP does not serve our interests. It solidifies two-party politics and leads to political gridlock and tribalism, such as we see in the United States. In the US, the two-party system is cemented into political life, and if we are not careful, the same kind of false choice will also be codified into British politics. 

The STV system was first practised in 1855 and could remedy the problems in the British political system. There is also a precedent for the system in the UK as STV is used in mayoral elections and formerly in this country to elect MEPs. 

STV is a less popular system than FPTP for national elections, as it is generally implemented at the local level, but why should it not work at the national level? It would create a more democratic, representative and fair electoral system which would better represent the more than half of British voters whose voices are overshadowed by the minority victories of FPTP. A fairer system - like this - for all of us in the UK would mean I and many others could vote knowing that each mark we make matters.

Image: Institute for Government

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