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UK: Electoral system delivers Tory majority but Tories can be beaten

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If websites and social media are anything to go by, people outside Britain were as surprised as the Brits themselves by the result of the May 7 general election. 

The opinion polls got it badly wrong. All of them predicted a close result between Labour and the Conservatives (Tories) resulting in another “hung parliament”, that is, one with no overall majority for a single party. 

In the event, the Labour - Tory race ended up with the latter gaining roughly 2 million more votes, roughly the same lead that produced the 2010 coalition. This time, however, the Conservatives won 331 seats, giving them an overall majority in the 650 member House of Commons. Labour won 232 seats, a net loss of 24. 

Yet, despite their overall majority, the Tories won only 36.8 per cent of the popular vote and there was only a minor swing to the Tories (0.8 per cent), some 600,000 votes in all. So how did they do it? 

Their victory was largely due to two spectacular collapses. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats went from 57 seats to 8; from 23 per cent in 2010 to 7.9 percent in 2015. Their electors, especially amongst students, felt utterly betrayed by a party that propped up an austerity government and broke its promise not to increase university tuition fees. 

The second collapse was Labour’s loss of 40 seats in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party won 56 out of the 59 seats. Scotland was Labour’s historic bastion, the place where an independent Labour Party was born, and which gave it its first two leaders. 

This too was a result of betrayal; Labour’s feeble performance in opposition since 2010, its joining with the Tories in the independence referendum and its installation of a right winger, Jim Murphy, to head the Scottish Labour Party. In addition, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon stole the party’s Old Labour clothes and adopted a bold anti-austerity message that Miliband dared not adopt. He failed to do so in part from fear of the disloyal Blairite right wing of his party and the crippling belief that winning seats in “Middle England”, that is, from the middle classes, demanded some degree of austerity.

But, behind the contingencies of electoral arithmetic, lies the underlying factor that produces such results; the grotesquely undemocratic First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system that Britain uses. 

In the UK ,voting takes place in constituencies that elect a single MP. Each one of the 650 constituencies is self-contained. Voters put one cross in a box next to their favoured candidate and the candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. All other votes count for nothing. Thus, only parties that have concentrations of voters in particular areas can win seats. Parties with large minorities spread evenly across the country can end up with few or no seats. 

In this election, this resulted in the right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, and the Greens, who together received over 5 million votes, winning only one seat apiece. Under a system of proportional representation they would have got 83 and 24 seats respectively. 

Yet, as long as the two major parties refuse to even consider altering the voting system, Britain is stuck with this democratic deficit which denies millions of voters representation in Parliament. In addition, the system makes it incredibly difficult for new parties to gain any sort of foothold or representation. The excuse usually trotted out to justify it is that it produces “strong governments”. But this fails to recognise that it is strong government for a minority of the electorate and, ultimately, for an even tinier minority of millionaires and billionaires, well represented in Cameron’s cabinet. 

Major democratic changes, not only proportional representation but the abolition of the House of Lords and the monarchy, are unlikely to be achieved simply by electing a Labour or a Lib-Dem government. They can come, however, as part and parcel of a major upsurge in the class struggle that links fundamental changes to our unequal and exploitative system, capitalism, to massively expanding democratic rights.

If, as a result of this struggle, a working class government comes to power and breaks up the apparatus of repression of the capitalist state, then it will be possible to implement not just these democratic reforms but a democracy far more responsive to the will and the initiatives of the majority. A democracy of councils of delegates will be far superior to all parliaments.

Meanwhile, British workers have a major battle on their hands against this reactionary government.

Rule and resistance

It is the first purely Tory government for 18 years and reports in the right wing press suggest it will try to take swift advantage of its “mandate” to rush through parliament yet more anti-trade union laws, the sell-off of yet more social housing and the privatisation of the health and education systems.

Resisting these savage attacks means, above all, turning away from the strategy that (mis) guided the British left and the trade unions over the past five years. Under supposedly left trade union leaders, there was talk of coordinated struggles, even a general strike, but in reality they failed to fight even on the NHS “reforms” and meekly surrendered when bosses threatened to close their plants, as at Grangemouth. 

The far left ran four, FOUR! rival “united” anti-cuts movements. Except at community or local workplace levels, there was no serious fight and so the ground shifted inexorably towards the ruling class and its parties. Now, British workers have to learn the lessons and do differently. The intellectuals who have set up a wailing about the huge swing to the right and the hegemony of  bourgeois ideology can be left to weep into their lattes.

This government, flushed with triumph, is not invulnerable or unbeatable, providing the working class movement learns lessons from its mistakes over the past five years. The Tories have internal contradictions, too, that may give David Cameron a big headache. He has a slim majority that will empower his ultra-Thatcherite right wing, especially on the European Union and immigration. 

He has to hold an in-out vote on the EU within two years and hopes to swindle his right wing that wants out of Europe at practically any cost. They have the support of millions of Tory as well as UKIP voters. In contrast, Britain’s bosses are eager to stay in the EU.  He also has to reach some sort of constitutional settlement with the Scottish National Party, which has a huge majority in both the Edinburgh Parliament and the Scots MPs at Westminster. 

The Tory election campaign demonised the SNP and a right wing Tory government in Westminster will alienate Scots even more from the United Kingdom. So, despite the victory for the Tories, we can expect further political earthquakes in the years to come.
The first opportunity to rally the anti-Tory forces comes with the June 20 anti-austerity march in London. The British left needs to genuinely unite its forces and create coordinating bodies at local level to mobilise together those fighting cuts in welfare, privatisations in health and education, racist immigration and anti-trade union laws. Together, from a myriad of local campaigns, the trade unions, school and university students, a mass movement can be built which will sweep the Tories from power long before their five years are up.  And then, anything is possible!