What Does 2016 Say about Democracy in the UK & America?
5 min read, Perspective

What Does 2016 Say about Democracy in the UK & America?

2016 really is turning out to be the year of the underdog. Leicester City surprised the world by winning the Premier League. On the 24th of June, Brits woke up to the news that 52% of voters had opted for “Brexit”. Despite having the kitchen sink thrown at him, Corbyn clung on as Labour leader with an increased majority. And the world has just woken up to the shocking news that Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. It’s only a matter of time before Ed Balls wins Strictly Come Dancing and “Honey G” wins X Factor…

What’s most baffling, however, is that worldover, we see broken “democratic” voting systems. In the US, Americans don’t vote directly for a president. Instead, each state is assigned a number of “electors”; depending on its population. For example, populous California has 55 electors compared to Delaware which only has 3 electors due to its small population size. Thus, the candidate who receives the highest vote share in a particular state receives all the votes from electors of that state. To become president, a candidate needs to have the majority of electors. Given there were 538 electors in the 2016 election, a president needed 270 electors.

In practice, while Trump won 69 more electoral votes than Clinton, he received 600,000 fewer votes compared to her. If you look at the United States from space, there wouldn’t be any clear boundaries between states: borders are social and political constructs. And yet these imaginary lines continue to shape politics in the 21st century. In America, it’s a sad reality, but all votes don’t matter equally. The extent to which a vote make a difference depends on upon political geography: it’s effectively a postcode lottery. So much for “democracy”.

It’s not just America, in the UK too, we find all votes are not equal. Despite, the dismal performance in the UK’s General Election last year, the Liberal Democrats still received almost 8 per cent of the total vote share. If we had proportional voting, that would give them around 51 seats in Parliament, yet they got a measly 8. During this election, UKIP too got 12.6 per cent of total vote share across the UK. Proportionally, this would give them 81 seats, but they just got one: Douglas Carswell. But we don’t allocate votes proportionally in Britain. Once again, political geography determines the importance of a vote.

In the 2015 UK general election, turnout was 66.1 percent: 15.7 million people didn’t vote at all. But you can see why, unfortunately, votes don’t hold the same weight under the first-past-the-post system. The only votes that really make a difference are those in marginal seats like Morley and Outwood, where the ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was notably ousted by Andrea Jenkyns.

In the EU Referendum, for all the ridicule the ‘Leave’ campaign got for their “bring back control” rhetoric, voters did indeed feel powerful because they knew their votes would make a difference. Here, the turnout was high — 72% of eligible voters cast a vote. In this democratic exercise, political geography was irrelevant. Thus, be it for better or for worse, the EU referendum politicised Britain. Individuals who had only taken a mild interest in politics in the past were talking about the referendum with friends and family in pubs, cafes and dining rooms. Politics was no longer merely something that belonged in newsrooms or lecture theatres. Making all votes matter equally seemed to reduce political apathy.

Elections of 2016 have made it clear that globalisation is not working in its present form, millions of individuals feel like they have been “left behind” and had no qualms about making protest votes. Of course, that is not to make excuses for xenophobia, racism or misogyny. But what’s clear is that the “Washington Consensus” (of which Hillary Clinton was emblematic ) is broken.

It can be debated as to whether or not protectionist policies or economic nationalism are really the solutions to complex problems of the world. But what is certain is that voting systems across the world are broken. If countries really want to claim their politics as “democratic”, then their voting systems need to be radically reformed. Democracy can be perilous for it essentially asks us to take sides. But let’s offer hope, not fear. Now is the time to organise, push for radical (but credible) economic alternatives and fix our broken voting systems. While there is no “perfect” electoral system, it’s time we all realised that the current system is unfit for purpose.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.

November 14, 2016

About Author

Cameron Broome

I would describe myself as a social democrat, feminist and Keynesian enthusiast. I’m also a member of the Labour Party, having joined the party the day Jeremy Corbyn became leader. My political heroes include Joseph Stiglitz, Owen Jones and Danny Dorling for their work on inequality. Currently, I’m a geography student at the University of Manchester. Follow me on Twitter below.

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