Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK elections of 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 (and THAT referendum)

A Failure of Parliamentary Democracy – the ongoing tale

Scope: UK Politics

All sides seem fed up with the way the Brexit negotiations have been handled, but in Parliament they seem so focused on Deal or No-Deal that they are not asking “why are we in this mess?”.

The answer would seem to be multiple failures of Parliamentary Democracy.

The range of failure

See-saw politics and minority rule

A two party parliamentary system leads to see-saw politics where we switch between extremes of political position. Where there are more than two parties the largest minority forms the Government and rules over the divided majority.

Over decades see-saw politics undermines policy continuity and leaves large parts of the country disenfranchised, dissatisfied and disillusioned. Coastal communities are an extreme example of such areas which feel neglected and ignored. It also applies to much of the UK’s “rust-belt” regions and struggling rural areas.

Lack of responsiveness to changing public opinion

Such a system is also unresponsive to changing public opinion particularly in policy areas off the left-right political axis that dominates two-party politics. Attitudes to the Environment or to Europe are the most obvious examples where there has been a gradual change in opinion that has been slow to be represented in Parliament.

For instance, any growing Euroscepticism (within the parties) was suppressed by the party system. And the electoral system saw to it that a new Eurosceptic party would struggle to get representation for its views within Parliament.

For such a change in public opinion to get representation requires the take-over of the policy platform of one of the two old elitist parties. This inevitably means disruptive sudden change as Parliament suddenly catches up with public opinion.

Lack of Parliamentary Confidence

A confident representative parliamentary system should be confident to take all decisions outside of general elections.

The use of referendums is an example of where a parliamentary system lacks that confidence and passes the buck to the electorate.

Such referendums are on areas which may seem to be simple binary choices – Should Scotland be Independent (Yes/No), Should the UK be in Europe (Remain/Leave) – but which have massive implications that fail to be adequately resolved during the referendum campaigns.

Arguably these complex issues are exactly the sort that our professional politicians should be resolving. They are complex and require deliberation, scrutiny and debate – preferably by people who have studied the issues. Referendum campaigns, like general elections, lack the sort of continuity of discussion found in prolonged debates in Parliaments. Referenda are also lacking in accountability – which does encourage a level of dishonesty which cannot as easily be applied in a Parliament.

The electorate (by definition less well informed than full-time professional politicians) inevitably has little choice but to take a simplistic gut decision during their few seconds in the polling booth. The electorate then passes their crowd-sourced opinion back to Parliament to implement. And Parliament has proved that it is not very good at implementing nebulous decisions of the people. Manifestos of a few hundred pages stand an outside chance of being implemented; decisions based on single words (Yes/No, Remain/Leave) don’t really stand a chance.

Delegate or Representative?

The slavish determination of the current (2018-2019) government (and parliament) to implement the simplistic “Will of the people” (in this case the 23 June 2016 Will) underlines both the parliamentary system’s lack of confidence and its inability to implement such decisions.

In a Parliamentary Representative Democracy, the Parliament should be capable of forming and expressing its own opinion of the nation’s best interests. It should be capable of saying:

the situation has changed; we all now know more than we did two and a half years ago; we believe that the “simple exit” from the EU promised in the referendum is undeliverable without significant cost and harm, and we therefore conclude that leaving the EU is not in the interests of the country and we (parliament) are abandoning it.

However they are now so hooked on the “implementing the decision of the 2016 referendum” that they risk taking us down a route that only a minority would have voted for in June 2016.

Ironically the only way that this Parliamentary Democracy can see out of this situation is to call another referendum – the very mechanism that undermined the confidence and sovereignty of Parliament!

Some say calling a second referendum would be to (further) undermine the UK’s (parliamentary) democracy. To some extent they are right – but they are ignoring the alternative which is that it is the duty of a representative parliament to act as guardians and advocates of the country’s best interests, not as mere delegates of the 2016 electorate.

The reasons for failure

A number of issues are to blame including the constituency system, the party system and the electoral system.

The Constituency System

Constituencies have their strengths both real and imagined, but they also cause distortions.

The primary strength of the constituency system is that MPs look to a specific area of the country for their support and in theory seek to represent that area.

This is in contrast to the Israeli system, where the whole country is in effect one constituency and voters vote for a party rather than individual candidates. This results in a very proportionate result, but denies MPs a particular constituency link.

Under the UK’s current First Past The Post system, a constituency will elect a single MP who often lacks majority support, but due to multiple parties standing has the biggest minority.

This has implications at both constituency and national level.

At Constituency Level

If we wish to complain to Parliament or a Minister, we are meant to “write to our MP”. In many cases¹ our MP is not from a party we supported and we often feel the response is formulaic and ineffective.

¹ In 2017 56% of voters voted for the party which won their constituency. So 44% of us are represented by an MP not of our choosing. In previous elections this figure has been even worse. In 2015 less than 50% of voters voted for the party which won their constituency. In 2010 only 47% of voters voted for the party which won their constituency.

If your MP is also on the government payroll, it is likely that he will put his job (slavish agreement with the government line) before the concerns of an individual constituent.

If you try to write to another MP (say the nearest MP of your political persuasion) to ask them to take up an issue, you will be asked for your address, and if you are not on the electoral roll for that MP’s constituency, you will be asked to take up the matter with your own MP.

Is it a surprise that collective lobbying is such an issue, if individual lobbying is ineffective?

The single member constituency is not a particularly good means of representing voters – especially when compared to alternatives.

At National Level

The fallacy that then hits the UK Parliamentary system is that a collection of “constituency majorities” leads to a representative “national majority”. It does not!

This might be illustrated by an extreme simplified example of a nine constituency nation electing candidates from three parties under the First Past the Post System. We could get results such as below.

North East38%22%40%🤠
South East30%40%30%🤦
South West80%15%5%🧐
North West80%15%5%🧐
Total Vote51%22%27%

In the above highly polarised nine constituency “nation”, the “hats” (🤠) with 27% of the vote gets power with 5 out of 9 seats and it is their programme that can be pushed through by a majority in Parliament.

That a party with so little support can dominate a country – particularly where one part of the country is heavily dominated by another party – is not a healthy situation.

The above example is extreme for illustrative purposes but the UK has:

  • had governments which gained fewer votes than the main opposition party
  • usually had governments with a parliamentary majority but which had less votes than the combined votes for all the opposition parties
  • parties whose support is spread across the country finding it very difficult to gain any seats
  • parts of the country dominated by one party which never has a chance to govern

The conventional idea (for Westminster) that a constituency should only have one representative also undermines democratic representation, both at the constituency level and (as illustrated above) at national level.

Many of these problems can be mitigated (see later).

The Party System

Over decades parliament has failed to be truly representative of the people – it has however been representative of the vested interests behind whichever of the two elitist political parties held power (on a minority vote).

This has resulted in a pent-up frustration in much of the electorate who feel that they are both neglected and taken for granted. It should have been no surprise that when given a vote that would have a meaning, the electorate gave the parliamentary system (headed at the time by David Cameron) a bloody nose.

In making that point it is not necessary to hold a view as to whether the electorate was genuinely wanting to exit the EU or not. The key point is that the electorate’s expressed view was so different to the collective view in Parliament.

A parliament dominated by two parties each with their own party discipline system, squeezes out diversity of opinion. Not only is there lack of diversity between parties, but there is also a lack of diversity within parties.

To get on in the political parties it is best to toe the line. Selection as a parliamentary candidate is easier if you are “mainstream” (i.e. agreeing with the current leadership).

Additionally, party activists tend to be more dogmatic than party supporters, and the activists select candidates.

One of the worst crimes that a party member can do is stand in opposition to an official candidate (to try and give the electorate “choice”) and consequently “split the party vote”.

In marginal “swing” seats, the electorate is therefore faced with a sort of Hobson’s choice of either (depending on the party) a candidate further to the left than they would like, or a candidate further to the right than they would like.

Consequently the choice of “least worst” does not effectively reflect public opinion. A change of MP creates a more dramatic change than the change of opinion in the constituency might justify. The see-saw flips – sometimes quite violently as the voting centre in the constituency decides that “on balance” it prefers one extreme to the other.

Outside the marginals, there won’t be any change until there is a political earthquake – most of the time those voters don’t matter as these seats are treated by the parties as “safe seats”. The incumbent party puts in minimum effort and the other parties (if they have any sense) put their energies elsewhere. Opposition parties put up “paper candidates” (candidates who do not expect to be elected and would sometimes be horrified if they were) in such constituencies with orders to keep their heads down (partly to avoid dropping clangers, but partly to ensure that media coverage is concentrated on seats they deem winnable).

As a result the party system is not responsive to changing public opinion until there is a dramatic switch in position – often following the election of a new leader.

The Voting System

The current voting system supports the current UK system where two established parties dominate Parliament. This is one reason why these parties are elitist – they very effectively shut out anyone who is not “one of us”. This happens at constituency level as well as at national level.

At Constituency Level

As noted before, First Pass the Post in single member constituencies, often means that an MP “represents” the largest minority in their constituency – the views of the majority are unrepresented.

Even then that minority is rubber-stamping a compromise candidate selected by the particular party’s selection committee. Thus while the majority within the selectorate may support an “extreme” candidate, across the whole constituency, the electorate may prefer a more “centralist” candidate. But this elitist system ensures we “get what we are given”.

This system also creates safe seats where MPs can safely ignore any threat from the opposition parties. As long as an MP represents their selection committee, they need not worry about deselection. If they have the selection in the bag, the election (involving real voters) is then a formality.

The voting system also prevents multi-member constituencies offering some solution to the lack of diversity of representation at constituency level. Some council wards are multi-member; but elected under FPTP either:

  • “all up” where all the councillors are elected at the same time and voters have as many votes as there are councillors to be elected – the largest minority tends to grab all the seats, or
  • “by thirds” where every election one of (say) three councillors is elected – the largest minority will win every time.

The multi-member constituency system fails to give better representation, not because of the constituency system but because of the voting system.

At National Level

The disparities brought about by the voting system in terms of number of votes “required” to elect an MP are relatively well known.

2017 Election Results

But the squeezing of diversity of opinion is less recognised.

The whipping system is meant to ensure that all MPs of a particular party vote together. Yet within parties there is a variety of opinion. Most parties are a coalition of factions – sometimes relatively content, but often warring.

Thus the House of Commons is portrayed as “red” or “blue”, when in fact the country is various shades of red, various shades of blue and various shades of other colours. But it is all boiled down to one shade of red and one shade of blue (depending on the leader / power bloc in each party that has temporary control).


The current set-up is often justified as giving decisive effective government with clear majorities. (Honest!)

Philosophically there is a decision to be made as to where differences should be resolved.

At the moment this happens predominantly within the parties. As a result elections are foregone conclusions within most constituencies and the idea is that governments always have majorities and consequently can execute their program without significant opposition.

Effective opposition at Parliamentary level is then difficult and arguable not necessary most of the time – after all “the will of the people” at the last election (even if that was only a minority of the votes on a sparse choice) is being implemented, and that’s democracy.

The alternative is that groups should formulate proposals for policy, the electorate then through a truly representative system elect, from a wider field, supporters of those proposals. Differences and compromises are worked out in Parliament.

Some say that working out compromises in Parliament involves “grubby” negotiations in “smoke filled rooms” and is somehow undemocratic. Yet that is what happens within the parties – we just don’t see it – and we are unrepresented in the discussions. We should be allowing our MPs to be representatives of all the people rather than delegates of their selection committees.


To restore (or introduce?) Representative Parliamentary Democracy at Westminster we need:

  1. A Representative Parliament that reflects the diversity of views within the country.
  2. A grown up view (within both Parliament and the electorate) of compromise – to abandon the current “taking it in turns for the ‘winner’ to take all”.
  3. Candidates and voters to be aware that electoral addresses are indicative and not promises cast in stone.

Referendums work counter to all of the above!

The first of the above requirements might enable the other two. It can be achieved by legislation, whilst the other two relate to a change in political culture.

Achieving a Representative Parliament that represents the diversity of views within the country requires a change to the electoral system to break the grip of the two old elitist parties and to allow voters to take back control of their democracy.

It has to be a system that offers a choice of candidates both between parties and within parties. It has to be a system where the result offers voters representatives with whom they can identify. It should be a system where the voter feels empowered and that their vote matters.

In my mind that points to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as used in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland (and in Scotland for Council Elections).

STV allows

  • voters to choose between candidates,
  • parties to offer a variety of candidates without fear of split votes,
  • mavericks (including “deselected” MPs) to stand without fear of splitting the vote.

With STV votes matter,

  • in a 4 seat constituency at least 80% of voters will have a representative with whom they can identify,
  • so it is worth voting – there are no “safe seats”, no wasted votes and tactical and protest voting is vastly reduced because you know that your vote will count.
  • In 4 seat constituencies any group that can achieve the support of at least ⅕th of the vote will secure a seat.²

² The examples given above are for 4 seat constituencies; in practice constituencies vary between 3 and 5 or sometimes 6, even 7 seats – to try to match “natural areas” – a small city or county, or part of a larger city or county.

The “numbers” relate to the quota – which is the total number of votes divided by the number of seats plus one, with one then added to the result (which helps to avoid tied votes). So:

3¼ +1
4⅕ +1
5⅙ +1
6⅐ +1
7⅛ +1

The logic is easily checked: suppose all the seats were filled by people just achieving the quota – how many votes would be left for a single unelected “runner up”? In a 3 seat constituency 3 quotas – ¾ of the vote (plus 3 votes) – will have been used to elect the 3 successful candidates. The best the runner up could achieve would be the rest of the votes; ¼ of the vote (minus those 3 votes).

This calculation is done by the returning officer; the voter only has to indicate the candidates in order of preference 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.

STV could radically change the power balance in our democracy. Instead of parties being able to foist candidates on voters in safe seats, we the voters could choose between individual candidates – our potential representatives.

Within multi-member constituencies the representation will better reflect the diversity of opinion in the constituency.

Within Parliament there will be a greater diversity of opinion represented. Our Parliamentary Democracy will be a Representative Democracy.

It’s a novel first step – worth trying?

Appendix: Contrast with other systems

Parliamentary Democracy contrasts with:

  • A Presidential Democracy, where a single figurehead is elected by “popular vote” as Head of Government, or
  • Direct Athenian Democracy, where everyone (except slaves, women, minors and foreigners ) could have a say in the Assembly

The two extremes above, in theory, give at least majority power – either through the populace voting as a whole – giving instantaneous “majorities”, or through the president being voted in, hopefully by a majority of the voting populace, giving intermittent majorities.

The need for effective widespread representation is one of the leading arguments for a Parliamentary system.

A president in theory represents the majority at the time of their election – the minority will be unrepresented and that majority may wane leading to the president only having minority support. This can lead to grid-lock if the legislature is in opposition to the President (the executive).

In a Direct Assembly everybody represents themselves which means the most active are the most heard. This can lead to a lack of consistency in decisions and a temptation to consider the individual before the community.

Parliamentary systems are often seen as a useful compromise between these two extremes.

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2 thoughts on “A Failure of Parliamentary Democracy – the ongoing tale

  1. Pingback: In Praise of the Fixed Term Parliament Act | Outside the marginals

  2. Pingback: Stepping into the Abyss | Outside the marginals

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