The Other Side of Electoral Reform

Following what has been called the most disproportionate election result in UK history, there is no surprise much of the subsequent discourse has been about voting reform. However, while many debate the pros and cons of Single Transferable Vote, Additional Members Systems and Proportional Representation, there are other electorally jaundiced practices damaging our democracy less directly.

I am not for one minute aiming to diminish the significance of our broken First Past The Post voting arrangement, I am a strong opponent of that system but I think people forget that electoral reform is a much bigger picture than just our methods of voting. Issues of particular note are the effect of biased media and party donations.

Media bias is always a contentious issue when it comes to presenting a case for reform because a lot of it isn’t quantifiable. While we’ve heard protestations from Nigel Farage that there is a pro-left agenda within the BBC, we have also seen claims that the BBC is actually promoting UKIP by giving their dealings uneven coverage. For example, UKIP have actually appeared on the BBC more times per MP than any other party in the country. However, as the main television and radio broadcasters are bound by law to be as objective as possible and commercial radio stations, though successful, don’t tend to cover politics, I’m going to make my point via the UK’s newspapers.

Influence... The swing from GE2015 election results for each newspaper's readership

Influence… The swing from GE2015 election results for each newspaper’s readership

This week YouGov released a ‘mega poll’ in which they detailed how readers of certain newspapers voted, and unsurprisingly, in all but one, there was a positive swing towards that paper’s endorsement. If we were to presume that a month’s readership is a newspaper’s regular following then we can accrue that newspapers have the potential to directly influence twenty million votes every election. Obviously that number is over zealous due to the assumption that readers are completely passive and that readers are swayed by a paper’s politics rather than choose the paper that most agrees with their already held views.

Regardless, this research is just an inference to the type of effect a biased media can have. Just think the infamous News UK mogul Rupert Murdoch is able to spread his political allegiances to 25 million people every single month, a tenth of which swing against public trend to his favoured parties according to YouGov – that doesn’t seem democratic to me.

In fact, the two main parties on either side of the spectrum, Labour and the Conservatives are the two biggest benefactors from the subjectivity of news platforms with both potentially winning two million voters per monthly readership from endorsements and slanted writing. Meanwhile the three other major parties without any partisan newspapers; the Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP suffer potential losses of 500,000 and 100,000 for the latter pair.  I am the first to admit these numbers are sketchy and imprecise, but they are a major indicator in to the effect biased storytelling can have on the electorate. My issue is not that newspapers have an opinion but more that the opinions are largely in line with Labour and the Conservatives. Media plurality in terms of printed news is largely a myth in this country, it isn’t right that 78% of the main newspapers in this country back either the Tories or Labour when only 44% of the electorate vote for them.

Potential... An extreme view of what an absolute newspaper influence would have on the electorate monthly

Potential… An extreme view of what an absolute newspaper influence would have on the electorate monthly

Of course, it is still arguable that the two main parties are as successful as they are purely because they are the most popular but it is too possible that years of indoctrination through a pious media has led to a distorted landscape. It’s hard to ascertain the genuine political leanings of the UK electorate without insulting their engagement in the issues –which is certainly something I don’t wish to do. However, we can safely say that there is a case to be made for the bigger parties having unfair advantages over smaller ones.

This brings me on to party donations and party spending. Having delved in to the Electoral Commission’s recent financial records I found some staggering results. For example, in the build up to the 2015 general election the Conservatives received 796 (seven hundred and ninety six times) more than Plaid Cyrmu in donations. In fact, the Tories were well ahead of all but one party, receiving £15.4m. Labour were the closest contenders for most fiscally supported party with £11.6m, the Lib Dems received £3m whereas UKIP and the Greens accepted £1m and £720,000 respectively. The two civic national parties of Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru received £1.1m and £19,000. Expectedly, the magnitude of these donations has largely matched the parties’ spending power from elections and referendums of recent times.


Give generously… record of donations received by each party in the first quarter of 2015

Hey big spender!... Party spending for every election and referendum from June 2001 to May 2014

Hey big spender!… Party spending for every election and referendum from June 2001 to May 2014

As a Liberal it is wrong to argue for the encroachment on a person’s autonomic economic right to donate to a cause of their choosing but the problem is not with the process of donation but the magnitude of donations. The gap between contributions received by the five smaller parties and Labour and the Conservatives is not down to an amplified popularity but a superior financial authority. Both parties have profited from cosy associations to trade unions in Labour’s case and big businesses in the Tories’.  This has led in some instances to regular six and seven digit donations – sums that add up and leave the other parties unable to compete. As a result the two main parties can plough more money in to their campaigns and make sure their message is proclaimed louder than any other, furthering the aims of their friends at the top of newspapers, unions and businesses. Even as a Liberal Democrat, I accept we were always going to take a bit of a battering in May but with an average spending ratio in the South West of 1:5 against the Tories, is it any wonder we were categorically slaughtered?

It would be erroneous, discourteous and pretty much puerile to take a reductionist approach that insists media bias and economic imbalance has corrupted the backbone of the electorate. After all, we all draw our own conclusions. Of course, solving the issue of a predisposed media that contaminates news for political gain is a tough subject, I don’t believe in too much intervention in the market as a liberal but I do believe in a fair vote and a just campaign as a democrat. While this issue is less easily resolved, I am in ardent support of a party donation cap, we cannot allow big money to change the way our country is governed. In a true liberal democracy, all sides can present their case on an equal footing and the electorate can choose which of those is most appealing. It’s not just voting that needs to change in Britain. The electoral process of this country is like an apple, the FPTP system is the bruising to the skin but disproportionate spending and loaded media statements show  that this apple is rotten to the core.

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