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Democratic sidebar to U.K. polls

by Tina Burrett

Britain is on the brink of its biggest political upheaval in a century. The general election that takes place this week has become an unofficial referendum on the electoral system itself. Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system discriminates against small parties, wastes votes and encourages politicians to shape their policies to suit a handful of swing voters in marginal constituencies.

In the twilight days of empire, Britain exported its flawed voting system to countries across the globe. But while many of its former colonies have since adopted a more proportional system, Britain has been slow to change.

Demands for a truly representative British Parliament are nothing new, beginning with the Chartist movement in the mid-19th century. Then as now, the FPTP system endures owing to the support of Britain’s two main parties, who benefit disproportionally from its skewering of the vote.

Since the 1960s, FPTP has alternately helped Labour and the Conservatives to a majority of parliamentary seats based on a minority of votes. At the last general election in 2005, Labour won 35 percent of the vote, but secured 55 percent of the seats. In the postwar era, on two occasions the party receiving the highest number of votes has been denied office. Thanks to the peculiarities of FPTP, they received fewer Commons seats than their nearest rival.

So why, after decades of concern only to activists and academics, has electoral reform become the cause celebre at this election?

The surprising answer is Britain’s first televised election debates. In Britain, as elsewhere, TV debates have proved a mixed blessing for democracy. Bringing British leaders head to head on television has highlighted substantive differences between the three participating parties.

Unfortunately, media commentary on the debates has diminished what voters have been able to learn about these differences. Rather than exploring the parties’ policies, the media have instead focused on personality — deploying instant polls to tell voters that one leader did better than the others without telling them how this assessment was reached.

Public and press agree that the undisputed — and unexpected — winner of the TV debates is Nick Clegg, the youthful leader of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats. Until now Clegg has been largely overlooked by the mainstream media.

Since the first debate, such is the extent of Cleggmania that one leading U.K. newspaper hailed the Lib Dem leader as “Britain’s own Barack Obama.” Yet Clegg’s sudden popularity has as much to do with the failures of his political opponents, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, as with his own successes.

Despite last year’s member-of- Parliament expenses scandal and financial crisis, which badly damaged public confidence in Britain’s political and financial institutions, Labour and the Conservatives are offering voters more of the same in this election.

Clegg and his party might not have all the answers to Britain’s woes, but they and voters acknowledge that the status quo is no longer acceptable or sustainable.

As an important side effect of Cleggmania, the British public have begun to ask why his party, which polled 22 percent of the vote at the last general election, received less than 10 percent of parliamentary seats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as one of the worst victims of the FPTP system, the Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for its replacement by a more proportional system. Previously, the two main parties refused to consider electoral reform, masking their self-interest by citing Benjamin Disraeli’s old adage that “England does not love coalitions.”

This no longer seems the case. The British electorate have taken proportional representation to their hearts, along with Nick. While Cameron continues to support the current voting system, arguing that only FPTP can deliver stability in the form of one-party government, Brown has grudging conceded that, if by some miracle he remains prime minister after the election, Labour will offer a referendum on electoral reform.

If some form of proportional representation is introduced after this election, Britain’s days of majority government are probably over for good. In the past half-century, public disillusionment with mainstream politics and a decline in class-based voting have led to a steady growth in support for minority parties.

The Scottish Nationalists are now the largest party in the Edinburgh Parliament, while the more extremist UKIP and BNP picked up seats in the 2008 local and European elections. Across the country, voters continue to elect coalitions to govern county and city halls. If coalition government can work at the local and regional level, it can also work nationally.

If truth be told, Britain’s two main parties are already coalitions of sorts. “A broad church” is the euphemism employed by both Labour and the Conservatives to explain the wide range of opinions within their ranks that come together out of electoral necessity. An end to FPTP would free parties from the need to secure a majority, allowing for a more honest realignment based on shared policies and principles.

The prospect of coalition government would put policy back at the center of British election campaigns. The current system compels parties to stand on a platform that is both timid and deliberately vague.

To do otherwise risks alienating the all-important swing voters in marginal constituencies in suburban England. A form of electoral reform that guarantees coalition government would liberate parties from the need to play to the center ground. Only then will politicians be free to offer radical solutions to the great problems of our time.

In embracing Nick Clegg and his call for electoral reform, the British public have shown they know a good idea when they see one, and that they will reward politicians who offer them something new.

Tina Burrett is assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan Campus.