It’s barely two days since the UK general election, and you could be forgiven for thinking that virtually no Britons with any sense voted for anyone but the Conservatives.
All of the media outlets owned by ‘tax-lite’ media tycoons Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers are pushing the line that Britons have overwhelmingly opted for the stability of David Cameron’s ‘long-term economic plan’.
But let’s just leave aside the Tory cheerleaders’ spin about ‘common sense’ policies and the need for continued austerity for the moment. Let’s instead focus on the issue of democracy.
Because, despite the assertion that Britain has decisively voted Tory, the winning party’s share of the vote – at 36.9% – would suggest otherwise.
Think about it: 63.1% of those who actually voted did so for other parties. That’s not just a majority. That’s an enormous non-Conservative electorate. (I would say ‘anti-Conservative’, but the Tories don’t stand for election in Northern Ireland which, though small, still elects MPs to Westminster.)
However, this already-obvious democratic deficit becomes even greater when you calculate the number of Tory voters as a proportion of the population. At 46.4m people, Thursday’s turnout was 66.1%, which means that the Conservatives have won a parliamentary majority with the support of just 24.4% of the British people.
Of course, governments winning power on a minority of the vote is nothing new in Britain. Tony Blair’s Labour party won the 1997 election with a 43.2% share of the vote (and just 35.2% in 2005), and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power in 1979 with 43.9%. Indeed, the 1931 general election was the last in which a party has won more than half of the votes cast when the Conservatives gained a 55.5% share.
The first-past-the-post system has always been an imperfect means of allocating seats, but while British politics was dominated by just two parties – Conservative and Labour – it could be argued it was the best of a bad set of options. And even had Britain’s election been based on a system of proportional representation in 1979, Thatcher’s Conservatives would almost certainly still have been the senior partner in any coalition. In other words, for all its faults, proportional representation probably would not have prevented Thatcher’s divisive “tyranny of the majority”.
But what we have now is much, much worse. Now the two-party system seems to have broken down, the shortcomings of first-past-the-post are there for all who wish to see. UKIP, for instance, polled 3.8m votes, but only won one seat – Clacton – while the SNP won 56 seats from 1.4m votes. So glaring is the democratic deficit that Thursday’s results threaten the government’s legitimacy – particularly given the Tories’ austerity agenda that’s every bit as divisive as Thatcher’s obsession with monetarism.
Of course, you won’t hear such comment from the vast majority of Britain’s press and media – especially the dominant Murdoch-Rothermere-Barclay axis, which has been so fulsome in welcoming the Conservatives back to power.
When a hung parliament seemed the most likely outcome, Cameron was keen to brand a minority Labour government as illegitimate. That word has vanished from the political vocabulary, even though a minority Labour administration would have represented a far greater proportion of the electorate than Cameron’s.
What we have today is the tyranny of the minority. With tax breaks for the rich and colossal government spending cuts to come, the Tories are transforming the state from a means of redistributing wealth down to the poor and middle classes, to a means of extracting wealth up to an already-fabulously rich financial and corporate elite.
With the possible loss of one million public-sector jobs, and the effective disappearance of whole government departments – all to balance a budget thrown into the red by the cost of bailing out the banks – the risk and legitimacy of social disorder could easily rise. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s Conservatives are looking to consolidate their grip on power by changing the constituency boundaries to block Labour out of office for decades.
Today’s democratic deficit and the tyranny of the minority are probably the greatest threats to government by consent that Britain has faced for many decades. We could be entering an age when public protest will be more legitimate than the formal political process.