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How democratic was the election?

Britain prides itself on being a democracy. Democracy is a noble idea but as Churchill observed it is the worst system "except for all the others". 

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." - Churchill

From a Christian perspective, democracy has the merit of taking human nature seriously. It aims to give every adult citizen an equal opportunity to choose who governs, reflecting the biblical value that we are all made equal in our Creator’s eyes. In theory it disperses power because fallen humans cannot be trusted with too much of it, as the history of dictatorships demonstrates. Elections are about consent but also about enabling citizens the opportunity to express their political convictions.

The question we ought now to be considering is whether last week’s election fulfilled these criteria. Most of the newspapers breathed a sigh of relief that we now have a majority government without the need to grapple with the untidiness of coalition politics. That judgement needs to be questioned in relation to the democratic ideal, not a partisan prejudice. Electing a stable government is obviously important but there are some very stable non-democratic governments in the world.

The Conservatives won 331 seats with 36.9% of the votes cast nationally, Labour won 232 seats with 30.4% and SNP won 56 seats with 4.5% of the votes. In stark contrast the Liberal Democrats won 8 seats with 7.9%, UKIP won 1 seat with 12.6% and the Greens won 1 seat with 3.8% of the votes. Clearly, each vote was not of equal value. If votes cast were of equal value UKIP would have 81 seats, the Lib Dems 50 seats and the Green Party 24 seats. The first past the post electoral system does not produce a truly democratic result and the majority government was actually opposed by 63% of the electors. That is not to attack the Conservatives but a criticism of the electoral system they did not create. They would no doubt remind us that there was a referendum on the electoral system in 2011 and 68% voted against changing it.

Of course there is more to democracy than how our votes are counted. The rule of law, an independent judiciary and fair trials are also important and missing from some of those non-democratic countries that have equally stable government. That a government has to face elections every five years and could be turned out is important but is it enough? The last two elections make plain that British politics is no longer dominated by just two parties. A more proportionate distribution of parliamentary seats would inevitably mean coalition government. Recent experience shows that this can work. Coalitions mean some compromises that zealots don’t like but that is what the distribution of votes says the voters really want.

That one third of the electorate did not vote is another unhealthy factor from a democratic perspective. Turnout in local elections is generally even worse. Is it time to consider changing the way we count votes, starting with local government, to see if proportional representation revives citizen engagement and gives us healthy democracy?

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