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Westminster’s Two-Party ‘Duopoly’ Leaves Voters with ‘Little Choice’ and Lacking ‘Meaningful Voice’, Study Finds

Political distrust has often “been the first step in a sequence of autocratisation, resulting in the breakdown of democracy itself” the report notes.

A Stop the Elections Bill Protest in Parliament Square in 2021. The legislation – now in force – means those without ID are now unable to cast their ballots. Photo: Guy Bell/Alamy Live News

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Westminster’s winner-takes-all voting system means millions of people’s votes – outside of swing seats – having “little to no impact on the outcome” of an election, according to a new report.

The paper from the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy has ignited debate about the glaring weaknesses of the UK’s political system, stating: “People feel disempowered – and to a large extent they are.”

Author Tim Hughes writes: “The current political system gives the public minimal direct influence over the decisions that affect their lives. Citizens get the opportunity to exercise their will at the ballot box, but their influence is fleeting, limited and unequal. 

“As a result, there is widespread public discontent with the current political system and the people who govern them and, in turn, significant demand for reform. This is not the fault of any individual politician or policy maker, but a systemic failure that must be addressed in order to improve how the UK is governed.”

And citing a recent piece by Byline Times, the research says that when politicians are found to be acting poorly – or in Nadine Dorries’ case, failing to turn up to Parliament at all – there is often “little sense of accountability or repercussion”. Instead, the perception is that they are not subject to the same rules of behaviour as the rest of society: “They make the rules, but do not abide by them.”

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In a rebuke of Westminster’s First past the Post voting system, the independent think tank finds that FPTP “results in many people’s votes – outside of marginal constituencies – having little to no impact on the outcome of an election, while the votes of others in battleground constituencies have a disproportionately high influence.”

Analysis from previous elections has suggested that voters in some constituencies wield more than 30 times as much power as those in others. “When elections are typically won or lost in the fight for ‘Mondeo Man’, ‘Worcester Woman’ or the ‘Red Wall’, the voices and interests of others often go unheard or ignored,” Tim Hughes writes. 

The Electoral Reform Society found that in 2019, the Green Party won 866,000 votes and received just one seat, whereas the Conservative and Labour parties won a seat for every 38,000 and 51,000 votes respectively. 

In 2015 the UK Independence Party received 12.6% of the vote (3.8 million votes) yet won just a single seat in parliament – though the pressure on the Conservatives in marginal seats arguably pushed the governing party to the right. 

The report also highlights the two-party domination of politics in England, adding: “If a voter feels greatest affinity with one of the smaller parties, it is hard for them to ensure their views are represented in parliament. 

“Voters are left with little choice at the ballot box if they want their vote to hold sway over the outcome, and elections for many become reduced to choosing between two equally unpalatable menus.” 

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Governments are frequently formed while lacking a majority of the vote – with unfair majorities of seats letting them control parliament and implement “major changes” without the support of most of the population”.

MPs also tend to come from a small section of society, even as they have become more diverse in terms of gender and race. 

The situation is “much worse” when it comes to social class, the author finds: “Politics is dominated by people with private school and university education, professional class occupations and political backgrounds. People from working-class backgrounds, on the other hand, are much less well represented at the decision making table.”

Of the 21 countries that were analysed, the UK was found to have some of the highest levels of political inequality in terms of the empowerment of rich voters compared to poor ones – with the UK’s party system “skewing more to the rich” than in any other country analysed. 

The paper suggests potential remedies to address the democratic deficit, including ensuring that parliamentary seats fairly reflect how the public vote. 

The UK has implemented small changes in recent years allowing more public participation in politics, including the official e-petition system in 2015. Over 45,000 petitions have been submitted to Parliament that way, amassing more than 50 million signatories. 

Yet more than three quarters (35,038) of these petitions have been rejected, with a much smaller proportion receiving a Government response (799) or being debated in parliament (159) – amounting to just 0.35%. 

Transparency International has also noted the dominance of lobbying firms and big business over public policy and political debate, noting the poorly regulated lobbying industry “can lead to policy outcomes that only benefit the interest groups with the most resources, and risk millions, sometimes billions, of pounds of public money.”

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Meanwhile, rights that would be constitutionally protected in other countries – over protest, voting and free speech – can be “easily curtailed” in the UK, through any Government wielding a simple parliamentary majority. In many democracies, including Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Japan and Switzerland, proposals for constitutional change must be approved in referendums.

Polling by YouGov found that only a very small proportion of people think parliament has done a good job in recent years of representing the interests and wishes of people like them (11%), understanding the daily lives of people like them (7%) and reflecting the full range of people and views of the British electorate (9%). The vast majority (81%) consider politicians to be out of touch. 

More starkly, the IfG paper argues this level of distrust and cynicism is “corrosive to democracy and good government. In other contexts, it has been the first step in a sequence of autocratisation, resulting in the breakdown of democracy itself.”

A 2021 citizens’ assembly organised by the Constitution Unit and Involve shows another way of involving people in politics. This assembly, comprising 67 randomly-selected citizens, gathered over six weekends to deliberate on democratic reforms, producing findings supported by overwhelming majorities on ways to reform politics. . 

Local governments in places like Belgium and Brazil have integrated forms of ‘deliberative democracy’ into their governance structures, which could offer a template for Britain. 

Read the report here

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