Britain’s Crisis of Representation

Britain’s democracy is becoming less and less representative.

Two parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have dominated British politics since the 1920s. At their peak, in the 1950s and ‘60s, they routinely accounted for at least 98 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. While their share has since fallen, this duopoly still hold 86 per cent of all seats today. Their dominance of British politics has, however, become increasingly unrepresentative of the electorate.

The crisis of representation in British politics can be seen by comparing the two parties’ share of seats in the House of Commons following each general election since 1918 (Figure 1) with their votes as a proportion of the electorate (Figure 2). Whereas their share of seats has fluctuated around 50 per cent each, their share of the electorate has fallen from almost 40 per cent each in 1951 to just 19-25 per cent since 2001. Their dominance over the House of Commons has, then, become increasingly disproportional to their support from the electorate.

Seats

Electorate

The immediate causes of this crisis of representation are well known: the emergence of smaller parties and falling voter turnout. Perhaps less appreciated is the sequence of these developments, and how one probably led to the other.

The rise of smaller parties came first. In 1951 Labour received 13,948,385 votes, the Conservatives 13,717,850, and the Liberals, the third party, just 730,546. By contrast, in 2015 the Conservatives received 11,300,109 votes, Labour 9,347,324, the UK Independence Party (Ukip) 3,881,099, the Liberal Democrats 2,415,862, the Scottish National Party (SNP) 1,454,436, and the Green Party 1,157,613. Thus, smaller parties have grown as support for the duopoly has fallen.

The drop in voter turnout occurred after the growth of the smaller parties. The revival of the Liberals began in the 1960s, was followed by the growth of the SNP in the 1970s, and continued with the emergence of new parties, such as Ukip and the Green Party, in the 1980s and ’90s. Throughout most of this period, voter turnout was consistently around the 70-80 per cent level. It only fell bellow that level during the New Labour years: from 71 per cent in 1997 to a nadir of 59 per cent in 2001. In subsequent general elections it has ranged from 61 to 66 per cent.

Turnout

A reasonable hypothesis would be that British voters have lost faith in their democracy due to its lack of representativeness. The growth of smaller parties has rarely seen the power of the Conservative-Labour duopoly challenged. Even when it was with the 2010 general election, which produced a hung parliament, it all but destroyed the Liberal Democrats after they entered into a coalition with the Conservatives. In 2015 normality was restored when the Conservatives were able to form a majority government despite receiving the votes of less than 25 per cent of the electorate. Falling turnout is thus likely to reflect disillusionment with an electoral system that has been unable to translate rising support for other political parties (and the ideals and interests that they embody) into meaningful parliamentary representation.

Unfortunately, this political system is extremely difficult to reform because implementing some kind of proportional representation would require the support of one of the two major parties. They would therefore have to abandon the system that they have profited from so handsomely over the past 80 years. The Conservatives currently have no interest in electoral reform because they are the half of the duopoly that is in the ascendency. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Labour Party, despite their professed radicalism and belief in democracy, appears to have little interest in the issue. The risk is that they will instead attempt to cobble together an electoral coalition of metropolitan elites and the ‘left behind’, in order to attain the votes of 25 per cent of the electorate, which may be enough to form a majority government. A more genuinely radical proposal would be to make British democracy more representative again by reforming its electoral system.

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One thought on “Britain’s Crisis of Representation

  1. Peter Sims

    There was a referendum on the issue of electoral reform in 2011. AV was soundly (68%) rejected by voters, and while it’s not proportional, it’s definitely a step closer to breaking the “duopoly”. Even if turnout wasn’t great, the margin of defeat was so convincing that I can’t see the referendum having gone any other way. If the underlying problem is disillusionment with the electoral system, why did we vote not to change it?

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