Fear will maintain our status quo

11 Sep 2013

It is a much discussed topic that the UK suffers from the illness of a two-party system, whereby either Labour or the Tories hold power over the Government, even though it is not evident that either party actually received the support of over 50% of the entire eligible electorate. Medicine for such a problem ranges from compulsory voting, to the increased relevance of parties, to a change in the voting system. However, the tumour that eats away at British confidence in our political system is unlikely to be defeated for one simple reason - fear.


Since the early twentieth century, government control has remained firmly in the hands of either the Conservatives or Labour. Yet, especially as of late, dissatisfaction with this established status quo is high, represented by a drop of party membership and electoral support; for example, neither party received a majority in the 2010 election. As such, you would be forgiven for thinking that the popularity of smaller parties may have soared and these two parties would have been displaced. Sadly, this is not the case. 

Poll levels for the two main parties are always fairly close or perceived to be close but are in no way representative of support from the full electorate. As such, the make-up of the House of Commons is even less representative of public opinion due to our First Past The Vote (FPTP) voting system. Take, for example, the 2010 election. Out of an electorate of an estimated 45,603,078, 29,687,604 voted but only 10,703,654 voted for the Conservative Party. Therefore, of the estimated electorate, only 23% voted for the Tories, whereas of those who voted, 36.1% voted for them. Yet, inexplicably, the Tories hold 47.1% of UK seats, representing roughly double the number of constituents who voted for them. In contrast, the Green Party received 265,243 (0.9%) votes, meaning that, for a properly representative House, the Green Party should have at least 5, possibly 6, MPs. It's no surprise therefore that people have become increasingly disenfranchised with a political system that doesn't represent them.

It is this lack of proportionality in the House that makes the situation worse. As people recognise that wide support for a small party doesn't necessarily result in representation in the House - the support needs to be concentrated under FPTP - they realise that their vote will only make any real difference if they vote for the Tories or Labour. It becomes a protest vote - worried that the worst of the two evils will take power if they don't vote, or they vote for a small party, people vote for the lesser of the two evils. People are fearful of a situation where the worse of the two options take power. Even though this feeling is fairly widespread, and people know that concentrated voting for a smaller party could alter the status quo, people fear that it won't work and, thus, stick to voting for one of the two major parties. While this attitude to voting continues to exist, we are unlikely to see anything different - maybe further coalitions are in our future, but we are bound to see the Tories or Labour form the majority of these.

Hence, the only real way to inspire confidence in voters and show them that there is a way to oust these two parties, is to introduce proportional representation, where every person's vote influences the makeup of the House of Commons, where 1% of the vote means 1% of the seats. Unfortunately, even this is unlikely to ever occur. Whilst Labour or the Tories hold control of Government and they know that a system of proportional representation would be detrimental to their prospects, we are unlikely to ever see this proposal make its way into law. The closest opportunity we had was when the Liberal Democrats coerced their coalition partners to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote, a step-down from their original Single Transferable Vote preference, which would have barely bettered the situation but was voted away anyway, reducing any chance of us changing this broken system.

There are only two ways in which we are going to be able to change our two-party system. Either it will be a long process, as small parties slowly grow in support, with their small local successes beginning to get noticed, but this is not an ideal approach. Alternatively, the process could be achieved through coalitions where smaller parties garner support through their successes in government. But if we are to take the Liberal Democrats in this coalition as an example, confidence in smaller parties is unlikely to grow. We need to change our voting system to see a genuine alteration to the status quo, to create a system where each vote is properly represented and where new political ideas can emerge from the grassroots of our democracy. Only then will we see the return of widespread political engagement within the UK.

By James Phillips

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