There are pluses and minuses to the first-past-the-post electoral system – also bequeathed at Partition in 1947 to Pakistan and India and indeed used in America since independence in 1776. The system has deficiencies as well. At the recent general election in the UK, the turnout was around 67 percent, or 32 million voters. We are a small country. Of these voters, around 45 percent opted to vote Conservative, and by extension for Brexit. It was enough in the 650 constituencies that constitute the UK to bring 365 Conservative MPs to the Houses of Parliament. They now have a very safe majority to pass their legislation.
The flaws in the constituency first-past-the-post system, or winner takes the seat, are that 55 percent of the UK did not vote for the Conservatives or for Brexit. At the referendum in 2016, 51 percent of the country voted to leave the European Union. At the 2019 general election, if you wanted to leave the EU you would vote either for the Conservatives or for the Brexit party (they received just over 600,000 national votes this election). The number of people wanting to leave the EU in 2019 seem to be somewhere around 46 percent – a minority then, and a decline since the original referendum of 2016.
As one bucket goes down the well, another one comes back up. It is a political irony that the numbers wishing to leave the EU are smaller than three years ago, but that the first-past-the-post system has delivered a government that has a majority of seats to deliver their number one manifesto pledge – leaving the European Union. So, leaving the EU is what the UK will be doing. On a proportionate representation basis in which parties had a number of seats in Parliament that reflected the number of votes received, the Conservatives would have had a minority government of 45 percent. Proportional representation, a sophisticated form of democracy, is used in many European countries. It often creates governments that are unable to do very much at all and are forced to make alliances, which then fall apart.
The party that came out with a blistering defeat in this election was Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party which has lost 60 seats since the 2017 election. Many in the media argue that it was Corbyn’s very left-wing Labour muddle that failed to provide a proper opposition and let the Conservatives in. The reality is probably more nuanced. Between 1997 and 2010, nothing the Conservatives could do, or the various forms of leadership they offered to the electorate, could budge Labour from government. Since then Labour have now been ten years out of power, but in the 2017 election reduced the Conservatives to a minority, or hung Parliament, incapable of getting its EU policies through.
With hindsight, it seems to have been the case that male voters were not happy about a woman prime minister, since this was Theresa May’s premiership, and so held on to their traditional Labour voting patterns. Boris Johnson promised “Brexit now” and “Rule Britannia”. For 45 percent of the voting public, that was all they wanted to hear. Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, sat on the fence over Brexit. He rightly stressed policies that would help the poor, including housing, transport and the national health service, but his party failed to tackle issues of religious discrimination within it, and the right-wing press inevitably labeled him a dangerous leftist who would weaken the country’s foreign policy and defence.
For the 13 years that Labour was elected into government, their policies and manifesto were centre-left, not far left. You are also not going to be elected prime minister unless you have intellectual dexterity and a degree of charisma. Jeremy Corbyn had his own charms but making jokes wasn’t one of his skills, although with one exception when on the 31st of October, the date we were due to leave the EU, came and went, of which Boris Johnson had said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than not leave the EU, which Corbyn addressed on the 1st of November as “another broken promise”.
There are high hopes for Emily Thornberry of Labour, or “the Baroness”, as Boris Johnson calls her in some fear. Emily Thornberry knew poverty and homelessness as a child when her father deserted her mother and his two children
The battle for the Labour leadership will now begin. There is much talk of a woman, possibly Rebecca Long Bailey, who is of the far left (like Corbyn) and Lisa Nandy, who is more centrist. Male voters did not happily vote for Theresa May, hence the votes for Corbyn in 2017. Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats [full disclosure: I write as a lifelong LibDem voter] lost votes and her seat by using a touchy-feely type of politics that we might associate with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.
There are high hopes for Emily Thornberry of Labour, or “the Baroness”, as Boris Johnson calls her in some fear. Emily Thornberry knew poverty and homelessness as a child when her father deserted her mother and his two children (he later went on to be deputy head of the UN). She made it through a difficult childhood to become a barrister. There is nothing touchy-feely about Emily Thornberry. She is made of very tough stuff, intellectually dextrous and well capable of leading the party from the centre-left with great character.
The problem again may be male voters in 2024. Gender was paramount to Boris Johnson’s swash and buckle – as well as the ability to talk nonsense. He hit the zeitgeist (feeling of the time) in some way. We are, quite really, quite backwards people here in the UK, in 2020.