It’s official – The British public has now entered its 83rd year since electing a government with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. That is to say, more people have voted against each Prime Minister, whether it be Winston Churchill or Tony Blair, than for them, in every single general election since 1931. On that occasion, Stanley Baldwin’s conservatives not only rinsed the Labour party of some 200 seats in the Commons, but, at over 11 million, they also scored the highest number of votes for any one party in the history of British politics.
Obviously, this achievement is very impressive, and even more obviously, it is no one’s interest to gut history of this milestone record. What is of concern, however, is that it does not remain impressive because of those record 11 million votes, neither does it continue to amaze historians because those votes managed to account for around 55 percent of all that were cast. Rather, the simple but awkward fact concerning Baldwin’s success is that no party nor prime minister has managed to equal it.
Before despairing though, we may take some, albeit superficial, comfort from the structural differences in political participation from the electoral landscape of 1931. Following the Second World War there have been adjustments as to how any “Labour womble” or “Tory weasel” can enter Parliament, perhaps most notably by the abolition of plural voting in 1948 and the re-organisation of constituencies in 1949. Nonetheless, to maintain that such alterations justify having no government achieve a majority mandate of public support in almost a century is misguided, and either way, these constitutional amendments primarily affected Party’s seat counts compared to their votes. It is for this reason, Clement Attlee could increase his vote share from roughly 12 million (47.7%) in 1945, to 14 million votes (48.8%) in 1951, yet still suffer the injustice of losing 98 seats between these general elections. Indeed, this tendency of First Past The Post (FPTP) to skew results in such an imbalanced way meant that in 1951 “little Clem” (as his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin referred to him in private) actually scored more votes than his opponent, Winston Churchill, but was still forced to hand over the keys to Number Ten when Churchill won more seats. Evidently, this disparity that still pervades British democracy between vote count and seat count, or public backing and political power, is of veritable cause for concern.
This article is not designed to weigh the relative merits and demerits of FPTP in a binary, textbook-like manner. (Though ironically enough, textbooks frequently represent it as a majoritarian system given a government’s need for a majority of seats in the Commons, but it actually appears much closer to a plurality system when talking in terms of public votes.) Rather, it is of interest to highlight the simple conflict of identity when a country such as Britain bills itself on the world stage as a liberal democracy, despite there being nothing at all progressive, or democratic, about the way in which it chooses those at the top of Disraeli’s “greasy pole” of politics.
If we are to invest this text with any purpose other than to draw attention to the democratic deficit every one of the British Prime Ministers have yielded since the 1930s, then it is to promote some kind of discourse between the ‘yes camp’ and the ‘no camp’ of electoral reform. Put simply, it is a debate worryingly absent from television screens, newspapers, and day-to-day coffee tables alike. Perhaps this has to do with a declining mainstream interest in the politics of Westminster, or even the watery consensus created by and sustained by modern capitalism, to the extent that there is little interest to be had in the first place with regard to the running of the country. There is no doubt government has become more and more depicted as a fiscal administration over an ideological vanguard to fulfil a vision of society. Either way, the debate is one that needs to be had if there is any impetus to avoid the celebration of a democratic deficit nearly as old as the Queen.
In conclusion, the endless debate of proportional representation versus FPTP exists on any sixteen-year-old’s politics course as well as on an innumerable count of webpages, and it is indeed most definitely worth a look. However, in order to avoid such a lengthy and potentially bloody argument, it is worth the time to simply remember it was over 83 years ago a British PM had more people vote with him (British politics tends to favour ‘hims’) than against him under the imbalances of First Past The Post. Thus, Tuesday 27 October 1931 is a date to be celebrated as the last time our voting system worked, and commemorated for the day it died. That alone should be enough of an argument to consider change.