Voters of Croydon – are you wasting your time?

By - Thursday 28th August, 2014

How many Croydonians will realise, as we head to the polls just nine months from now, that 85% of votes cast are worthless? Too few of us, says Michael Gold

Blue south, red north: Croydon is a microcosm of the UK.
Image by Tom Black, used with permission.

In the UK, 46 million people are registered to vote in parliamentary elections. Sadly, 39 million of those votes (that’s 85%) are worthless! Their chance of making the slightest difference to the outcome? Zero.

The political parties know this, so their policies are not designed for the nation as a whole, but for winning the marginal seats and gaining or retaining power. Pollsters and focus groups proliferate, and the resulting policies can totally disregard what the public wants nationally.

The 1832 Reform Act created parliamentary seats in the new industrial towns and abolished the rotten boroughs where there were tiny electorates, often controlled by one individual. Today, the first-past-the-post voting system means that the safe seats – the ones that never change hands – are the equivalent of the old rotten boroughs.

The majority has a vote that is totally worthless

In these safe seats, a small party caucus chooses the candidate/MP, and the electorate can do no more than give the election a superficial sheen of respectability. This is not democracy but a complete sham, and sadly, the reality is that the vast majority of the electorate has a vote that is totally worthless.

The BBC states that a swing to Labour of 5% in 2015 would give them an outright parliamentary majority, whilst the Tories need a swing of just 2% for an overall majority.

There are currently 650 seats in the House of Commons, and in 12 of the 17 elections since 1950, less than 10% of the seats changed hands from one party to another.

How many seats will change hands in 2015? Only twice in the elections since 1950 have more than 100 seats changed hands. In 1997, it was 184 seats, and in 2010 it was 115 seats. So it’s a reasonable to expect about 100 seats will change hands in the next election – this would mean that 550 seats will remain the same. 85% of the seats will have an MP selected, not elected.

Opinion polls and petition sites have shown that, nationally, the vast majority of people in the UK want a publicly-run NHS that is democratically accountable and this majority is quantified by London GP Dr Louise Irvine, spokesperson for the National Health Action Party, as 84%.

Croydon is a microcosm of the UK

The pollsters and petition sites have also been recording concerns about both the costs and the quality of service from the franchised railway companies and privatised utilities, and the increasing demand for these services to be brought back into public ownership. (The record number of complaints against the energy companies speaks for itself.)

But are we all just wasting our time?
Photo by Labour Party, used with permission.

It is probable that a majority in the Labour Party, and a majority of Labour voters, also want these policies. But the perception of the Labour leadership and its advisors is that these policies will not win the all-important marginals. In fact, only the Green Party offers these policies, and they certainly cannot win an election based on first-past-the-post!

The London Borough of Croydon is, in some ways, a microcosm of the UK as a whole. It has two safe seats and one marginal. Croydon North (Labour) and Croydon South (Tory) are the safe seats, and Croydon Central (Tory) is the 50th most marginal Tory seat. It is a seat that has changed hands in the past, and it would take a swing of 4% for a Labour victory. So it’s a seat Labour would need to win if they were to gain an overall majority.

Croydon North is mainly modest terraced houses and council or ex-council flats. Croydon South is affluent suburbia and the commuter belt, whilst Croydon Central is a mix of the two.

In 2010, Labour won Croydon North with 56% of the votes cast, the Tories won Croydon South with 51%, and Croydon Central with 40% against Labour’s 34%. The turnout was 61% in North, 69% in South and 65% in Central. Taken together, the three constituencies show an overall turnout of around 65%, which means a third of those registered to vote did not bother to vote.

These figures tell a very discouraging story. The two safe seats were only safe because there were a number of opposition candidates that split the vote. In the marginal seat, 60% of those who voted did not vote for the victor!

The electorate must fight for control of the electoral process

This is not democracy. The two main political parties know this, and are responsible for perpetuating this sad state of affairs purely because only they can ever form a government. If British politics is to become truly democratic, the electorate needs to start fighting back, and taking control of the electoral process. A good starting point might be by discovering why those who didn’t vote chose not to.

At local level, perhaps people could be encouraged to vote tactically. In a marginal seat, there could be a campaign to vote for an agreed candidate who is not from one of the three main parties, and who is committed to electoral reform and proportional representation. If this was replicated in a 100 marginal seats, then a reasonable number of MPs could be elected and hold the balance of power. This scenario opens up the possibility of the main parties embracing reform, even if only because of enlightened self-interest!

Alternatively, since 85% of our votes are worthless, why bother voting at all? The effect of large numbers of people not voting might hopefully reduce the turnout to an embarrassing low level. This might then force the two main political parties to take electoral reform seriously, even if only to protect their own credibility!

Further suggestions for making elections more democratic will be very welcome!

Michael Gold

Michael Gold

Michael Gold was in the Labour Party in the 1960s but left disillusioned and then worked in the travel industry, mainly abroad, for some 40 years. Returning to the UK as a senior citizen he remembered his youthful radicalism, joined the Green Party & Occupy and set up a blog

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  • Mario Creatura

    Form a group or join a party. Campaign. Get representatives on Residents’ Associations, PTAs, local Magistrates and other community groups. Convince people locally to support you. Win one seat at a Council election. Keep focusing on local issues. Get two council seats. Grow. Over many years of convincing people, you may be a contender in a constituency. Do more, work hard, convince enough people and you can take over a constituency. Replicate across the country.

    That was Paddy Ashdown’s plan for the Liberal Democrats. And it’s served them very well. We don’t need to change the electoral system, in my view, we just need to engage with people and gain their trust. Simple, but requires hard work to make it happen.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      If you actually read the piece, you discover why so many don’t feel it’s worth the bother, although most of these disaffected couldn’t explain their reasons as Michael Gold does; they simply sense – correctly – that they are powerless. Those who do actually want to engage with it all are invariably seeking a political career – that is, they want to secure a safe seat under the present system and therefore have no wish to change it.

  • Anne Giles

    Personally, I think politics should be taught in schools. Many people have no idea what they are voting for. The UKIP voters do not understand immigration or the EU. They have no idea that over 1 million British people are working in Europe because of the EU and they don’t appreciate that most immigrants are people who have benefited this country, investing money, paying their taxes and working hard.

    • RSDavies

      Well said! Everyone seems to forget that in the 70′s and 80′s when large swathes of UK were virtually collapsing, you could go to Liverpool St Stn every evening and see a queue of men lined up, waiting for the Harwich train to take them to Germany and Holland to work. And when they arrived they found hundreds of thousands of ordinary British men working all over the place. Oddly no one complained when UK needed an outlet for its unemployed.
      Germans did complain that many worked illegally not paying tax or insurance, often undercutting German workers. But they still didn’t propose leaving the EU. The demands for all foreigners to be expelled were largely stopped when Channel 3 TV showed a docu-drama of what it would be like if all the “Gastarbeiters” were expelled – streets strewn with litter, empty supermarket shelves, economic crisis. Perhaps we need BBC / ITV / C4 to do something similar.

  • Peter Staveley

    Of course UKIP has long been arguing for electoral
    reform. UKIP wants to see a form of proportional representation at all levels
    of government. In May 2014 UKIP became the only party (that was not the Labour
    Party or the Conservative Party) to have won a national election for over 100
    years. The European election uses a proportional system that ensures that all
    votes count. If our votes counted then I am sure that voters would be more
    interested in our they are governed.

    The coalition Government promised to put Peers in the
    House of Lords to reflect the voting in the 2010 General Election. That would
    have meant there would be over 20 UKIP Peers, none have been appointed. As
    Douglas Carswell stated this morning, when he defected to UKIP, the
    Conservative Party and the coalition Government are not interested in electoral
    reform that the Country needs. Indeed Douglas has done the honourable thing and
    has asked his voters to confirm that he should be a UKIP MP by standing down
    and so forcing a by-election. It will be interesting to see how long the
    Conservatives attempt to delay the calling of the by-election, since it is in
    their gift to call it.

    In Croydon it is a sad fact that those voters in Croydon
    North and Croydon South will have no say in the make-up of the next Government.
    That fact is one of the reasons that the turnout for elections is so low. The only
    encouraging thing is that polling by the Conservative Lord Ashcroft has shown
    that a large proportion of UKIP votes come not from previous Conservative
    voters nor from previous Labour voters but from people who have never voted or
    have not voted for more than 10 years. To me (and today’s defection) shows that
    there is hope for British politics and that not all politicians are from public
    schools and are totally out of touch with the voters.

  • Bob_G

    What we don’t want though is endless coalitions, which is what happens in countries that use PR. You get a single party with say 30% of the vote, and it agrees to support whichever other parties make it’s leader (for example) chancellor. So it keeps that post in perpetuity. Once that happens, then you get things like the unsackable Merkel, or the recent Euro leadership election where a candidate can win without a single UK voter having any say whatsoever.

    • Peter Staveley

      Of course the problem with the EU is that it is designed to be anti-democratic. The proportional election only elects the MEPs, who has far fewer powers than a Member of the House of Lords. There is no democracy in either the Commission or the Council, which is where the real power of the EU lies.

      I understand the problem of parties doing back-room deals. That means we have to think-through the electoral system that is to be adopted. Therefore, I would suggest that we have to be able to elect the leader (which the EU does not permit).

      One solution would be to make sure that you have the power of recall by the voters. So if a petition of a x% of voters (and we can argue over the value of x, but it would be at least 5%) then a by-election of the MP is called. That would have been useful to get over today’s problem that the PCC for South Yorkshire will not resign and we cannot sack him, because there is no power of recall by the voters.

      Ultimately what matters is whether the Country’s economy is good and that the population take an interest in how they are governed. The electoral system should be designed to allow that to happen rather than worry about the people in government.

      Personally I like the Swiss system of direct democracy where there are referendums on the important matters and a (sizeable) petition can initiate a referendum. The Swiss manage to run a healthy economy and, by all
      accounts, their population think that it is being run democratically.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      It’s certainly a risk, although there isn’t just one entity called ‘PR’ but a number of different versions of it. Debating this arcane matter does not, of course, engage people either.

      Whatever the risk, I still prefer a muddled attempt at reflecting the ‘will of the people’ to the system we have now, which results in little will to do anything.

    • 4187

      Coalitions represent collectively what the majority of the electorate voted for, which is democratic. Coalition partners will have to find compromises, which is democratic.Smaller parties have a representation in parliament with PR and can act as a real opposition to government. Also democratic!
      Coming from a country with a PR voting system, no monarchy and no House of Lords, I am perpetually baffled that the political system of the UK is considered democratic. It simply isn’t.
      As for the European leadership, I am sure that a number of UK voters supported precisely those parties who elected the new EU leadership. UK voters have a say and exactly as much of a say as every other voter in every other EU country. One point of a democracy is that the majority governs, not he who shouts loudest – even though the current UK government seems to find that point hard to understand.

      • Bob_G

        Actually, no, not a single UK voter voted for ANY of the parties that elected the new EU Parliament leadership. This is because none of them stood in any UK constituencies. Every UK single candidate that stood (from Lab to UKIP, and including the wacky independents) supported one or other of the other blocks. Under the EU system, the largest block, in which the UK has absolutely no say, selects the leadership. Under that version of democracy, a world government would be permanently 100% Chinese. Democracy comes in many versions, and that isn’t one I’d, er, vote for. ;-)

        • 4187

          That is not correct. The President of the European Commission is elected by the EU Parliament, not simply determined by the block with most seats. The block with the most seats proposes the candidate, but he/she still needs to get a majority of the vote in the EU Parliament to become President. Since no single block currently has a clear majority (the result of a working PR voting system), votes from the EEP block, as well as other blocks (such as the S&D block, which the Labour party is part of) are needed to elect the president. Therefore UK voters have a say, just as much as any other voters across the EU! Or are you trying to tell me that absolutely no-one in the UK voted for Labour candidates in the EU elections?

          It is the choice of the Conservatives to be part of a smaller eurosceptic block instead of the larger EEP block. They have chosen to be on the sidelines! They could equally well be part of the EEP, so the “blame” for certain UK voters not being represented in the biggest block should, if anything, lie with the national party those voters support, not with the EU system.

          Of course the likes of Cameron and Farage try hard to make us believe that every single one of us in UK is at the complete mercy of the EU and we all have no say whatsoever. They seem to have been quite successful with their propaganda, you for one clearly bought into it! Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about the EU that isn’t great and needs changing, but when it comes to the voting system, the EU’s is certainly better at representing the majority of voters’ opinions than the UK’s!

  • John Cartwright

    I have always been in favour of Proportional Representation (by STV) but this article does not help when it makes ridiculous statements such as “85% of our votes are worthless” or “This is not democracy”. The majority of people who voted Conservative in Croydon South, or for Labour in Croydon North, did not think they were “wasting” their votes when they elected Richard Ottaway and Steve Reed, and the people who voted for the losing candidates did not think that they were somehow deprived of “democracy” just because their preferred parties lost.

    If the people of the UK were so desperate that they wanted to elect 100 non-party MPs, on the single issue of electoral reform, they would have done so ages ago. If PR comes to the House of Commons, it will be because of the benefits of co-operation between parties, such as the good work done by the Coalition at the national level, and in many joint administrations in hung councils all over the country.

    As Mario says, minor parties such as the Liberal Democrats (and also the Green Party in 2010 and possibly UKIP in 2015) can win seats and achieve results even under First-Past-The-Post. We happen to have a good, reasonably balanced parliament at the moment, but the danger will be shown more clearly if we get a Labour majority government elected in future with perhaps not even a plurality of the votes.