The defeat of the government on Wednesday night over ‘Amendment 7’ of the EU withdrawal bill, put forward by ‘rebel’ Conservative MP and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve was a jubilant moment, and has been hailed as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty. The Amendment will allow for all 650 MP’s in the Commons to have the ‘meaningful vote’ on the final negotiated Brexit deal, that Theresa May has been trying to do everything in her power to stop from happening. But as she is continuously tested by governance as a minority party – the result of her hedonistic, botched election in June – scenes like an entire Tory cabinet looking like they are going to burst into tears is something we should be getting used to over the coming months. The Tories have always torn themselves apart over Europe, so this level of factionalism within their ranks is commonplace. Nevertheless, it still fills me with joy to see May’s government gradually collapse, primarily because of their own incompetence and stupidities.
The problem I have with this notion of parliamentary sovereignty though, is whether it is compatible with our archaic and un-democratic electoral system. Parliamentary sovereignty is bestowed upon a legislature by the electorate, and in theory should be respected as the most superior law-making body, but as First-Past-The-Post is a disproportionate system that does not value each persons vote equally (political equality being one of the core features of any democracy!), and in practise makes politics in the UK a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives, parliamentary sovereignty means nada.
The problems with FPtP are vast. Firstly, MP’s are not required to receive 50% or more of their constituency vote to get elected to the Commons, only requiring them to have a higher number of votes than their competition. This means that an MP could be elected to parliament with only 20% of their constituency actually having voted for them, as long as any other candidate in the same constituency got less than 20%. In 2010, this meant that only 34% of MP’s had more than 50% of their constituency vote. This is deeply undemocratic; undermining the concepts of majoritarianism and political equality.
This is turn has ramifications for our elections on a larger scale. Parties trying to form a government only need to get 50%+1 of the seats in the Commons (326/650), but don’t need a majority of votes across the country as you would get under a more proportional electoral system. So in reality, votes only matter in concentrated constituencies, leading to ‘safe seats’ where only one party is assured of winning. If you lived in one of these safe seats – for example Camberwell and Peckham which is a safe Labour seat – and wanted to vote Tory or Green or Liberal Democrat, your vote is almost always going to be wasted, as the party you vote for has no chance of winning, and your vote means nothing on a national scale because our system doesn’t work like that. Again in 2010, this meant that 53% of all votes cast across the country were ‘wasted’ on candidates that didn’t win seats.
Even more alarming is how little popular support a party needs to form a government. In 2015, the Conservatives gained a slim majority of the seats (331/650) but only 36.9% of all votes cast across the country. Then, if you take into account all eligible voters, this number drops to 24.4%. That means that of all those eligible to vote (including those who did vote, and those who didn’t), the Tories had less than a quarter of the publics actual electoral support.
Is this democracy? Is our parliament truly sovereign, if those we have elected to sit in it don’t even have the majority of the people on side? The answer is a simple no. Don’t get me wrong, Wednesdays vote was a victory for parliament, in that it has successfully ‘taken back control’ of the Brexit process, and disallowed May and her incompetent cabinet to take us off the cliff edge with an ideologically-driven hard Brexit. But once Brexit is over and done with (whenever that may be), we need to start a wider debate about our electoral processes. Surely a big part of voter disillusionment stems from the fact that our electoral system is rigged in favour of only two parties, destroying political equality with it. Our ‘sovereign’ House may be the ‘Mother of all parliaments’, but it’s offspring legislatures across Europe and the world have developed democratic systems far beyond what we have in the UK, and their democracies are better for it.