Electoral reform activists plan to turn hundreds of litter bins into mock ballot boxes next month to highlight their claim that most votes are wasted in British elections.
Makes Votes Matter will hold a nationwide Demand Democracy Day on July 6, calling for “mass action to show and build support for proportional representation in general elections.”
In the last general election in 2017, about 68% of voters “didn’t play an active role in the decision of the outcome because they either were for losing candidates or they were for winning candidates who didn’t need that many votes,” said Darren Hughes, head of Britain’s Electoral Reform Society.
In 2015, in what the society called “the most disproportionate election in British history,” the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority with just 37% of votes under the first-past-the-post, constituency based system, which has been used in its current form since 1950.
Most voters appear to acquiesce in the system, which has allowed the Conservatives and the main opposition, Labour, to dominate British politics.
Britain will get a new prime minister in late July without another general election, just as it did three years ago when the Conservatives chose Theresa May after David Cameron failed to persuade voters to remain in the European Union in the Brexit referendum.
May agreed to step down over her failure to withdraw the country from the EU.
But the Brexit debate, which started years before the 2016 referendum, has catalysed a shift in attitudes to the two main parties and perhaps to the electoral system.
“We have a system where seats don’t match votes so we’ve regularly seen single-party governments formed on a small percentage of the vote, sometimes as low as the high 30s,” Hughes, a former Labour lawmaker in New Zealand said.
“So there is a structural problem...[and] a political-cultural problem at the moment, which is the volatility amongst voters,” he said.
Recent elections for local councils and the European Parliament suggest a dramatic shift that bodes ill for the Conservatives and Labour.
Polls suggest the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, for most of their recent history a distant third in elections, are now as popular as the Conservatives and Labour.
Veteran anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, formed in April, has made an even more spectacular vote grab from the traditional “big two.”
A YouGov poll of general election voting intentions, published on Wednesday, put the Brexit Party and the Conservatives level on 22%, with Labour on 20% and the Liberal Democrats on 19%.
“There is little doubt that Britain’s traditional two-party system is facing its biggest challenge yet in the wake of the Brexit impasse,” John Curtice, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde, told a recent seminar.
Hughes said there is growing public awareness that “something is fundamentally wrong here - that we are trying to get a multi-party political society into a two-party political system - and it’s having all kinds of horrendous consequences.”
But the route to change is difficult because “the power to change the system essentially lies in the hands of the people who benefit from the very electoral system we’re talking about,” he added.
Lawmaker Chuka Umunna, who joined the Liberal Democrats this month after leaving Labour in February, recently told a parliamentary group on proportional representation that the electoral system “is essentially rigged in favour of two parties.”
“That worked, one could argue, in a Britain of a different age, when our country was essentially divided between the interests of business and capital on the one hand, and the interests of labour on the other,” Umunna said. “We cannot divide up our country in that way in this day and age.”
Yet support from one of the big two is still needed for any change to happen, Hughes said.
With little appetite for another referendum after Brexit, he said, in the short-term any push might have to rely on Labour changing its manifesto, which “seems unlikely under Jeremy Corbyn.”