Political Ms: Brexit – the emotional fall-out. Has the voting system contributed to the animosity?

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This week’s Political Ms asks if the UK’s voting system is partially to blame for post-Brexit animosity

Whatever one’s rational thoughts and personal feelings about the UK’s referendum on EU membership we can probably all agree that the result has caused strong emotional reactions, including regret, bitterness and animosity.

In the last week, friends have written to the OWL saying that they are ‘angry’, ‘in despair’, and ‘considering moving to Ireland.’ A Lithuanian friend has been shouted at in a West London street, friends are hurling abuse at each other on Facebook and families are falling out.

Of course, there’s nothing new about political events causing emotional responses. Politics at its most fundamental is about values and these are partly based on emotions. Values, together with varying degrees of pragmatism, guide the choices we make as political beings, including our reactions to big events. And there’s no doubt that the rejection of the EU membership is a big event.

That said, the anger and animosity currently surfacing are not only worrying in themselves. They are also giving rise to new, accepted truths that are seen by different groups as general laws of democracy. For instance, in some circles, it now appears to be OK to shout racist abuse at immigrants, as if the leave result had somehow granted a mandate for such behavior.

Likewise, in other segments of society, it’s now a commonly held belief that older people should have less political influence than the young – the logic being that the old are going to die soon and hence won’t have to live in the world they’ve taken part in creating. Never mind the sacrifices and contributions they have made along the way.

Finally, the mechanisms of majority government are being questioned, not with reference to process (which would be legitimate and indeed, expected), but with reference to outcome ‘I want a new vote because the other idiots voted the wrong way in the first one’. Interestingly, the very voices that reject the referendum as anti-democratic mob-rule, are often quite happy to issue petitions demanding change, elections and the resignations of elected leaders. This is linked to the growing tendency towards dismissing those with a different opinion as too rich, too poor, too expensively educated, not sufficiently educated, too old, too young, too urban or too rural. That opinions can differ is becoming questionable. If somebody else doesn’t think like me, it’s because there’s something wrong. With them. Politics is getting personal, and these days we all stand a good chance of being criticized and attacked, not for our values or opinions, but for who we are, or at least who we are perceived to be.

Whilst there are obviously many reasons for the frustration, I would like to propose the hypothesis that the structures of the voting system itself could – if not quite have caused – then at least exacerbated the situation.

There are three reasons this could be the case: 1. the ceremonious area-based declaration of election results, 2. local constituency ‘compensation’ in general elections, and 3. the safe protest vote in winner-takes all systems.

1 The Ceremonious Area-based Declaration of Results

UK general elections are decided under a first past the post system also known as Winner-takes-all. The winning candidate in each constituency becomes the MP and nobody else gets anything. This means that the votes not cast for the winning candidate don’t count as they would under proportional representation. The advantages and disadvantages of Winner-takes-all are not the topic of this blogpost, but it’s obvious that the system lends itself to drama. Both because of the all-or-nothing element, but also because the British have a longstanding tradition of lining up the political contestants on a podium and subjecting them to public announcement of the results. This ceremonious declaration format was also adopted for the EU referendum, in a slightly varied form, but still with geographically based rhetoric such as ‘Watford has declared,’ ‘Scotland votes in,’ etc., clearly emphasizing geographical preferences and contrasts, hence drawing up the battle lines for inter-regional animosity.

2 Local Constituency ‘Compensation’ in General Elections

In a general election decided by the winner-takes-all method, there are potential compensations for those voters who are not on the overall winning side. For instance, in the 2015 election, when the Conservatives won an overall parliamentary majority, constituencies in which a majority voted for a Labour candidate, would still get a ‘price’. Whilst not having won the election, people would have the consolation of securing their preferred representative. In other words, even if the national outcome of a Winner-takes-all election goes against the voter, he may still get the MP he wants. This is important because of the UK tradition of close relationships between constituents and ‘their’ MP. So, you can be an overall loser but partial winner.

Such compensation obviously doesn’t exist in a referendum where all ballots count and only one, national result matters.

3 The Safe Protest Vote

In a Winner-takes-all system, disillusioned voters can use the ballot to send a costless message, giving two-up to the system and showing the scoundrels that they’re not as safe as they think, thereby eventually guiding policy whilst securing their truly preferred candidate at the same time. This is possible because although the losing votes don’t count they are still both counted and reported, thereby offering voters the opportunity to influence policy without voting in the person who would potentially deliver that policy (this applies mainly in so-called ‘safe’ seat constituencies). A prime example of this is the UKIP case from the 2015 election. UKIP gained 12.6% of the vote, which merely translated into one seat in parliament. In a system of proportional representation, that number would have been in the region of 81 MPs. Under Winner-takes-all, the voter can sleep at night knowing his ‘anti’ vote was given and his message delivered, whilst still having the candidate whom in his heart of heart, or brain of brains, he prefers as an actual representative in parliament.

But this is not how things work in a referendum. Here every vote is not only counted. It also counts. Hence, if some people used their vote on 23rd June to ‘send a message’ whilst actually wanting to remain in the EU, then they are guilty of a miscalculation, one that was caused by habitual thinking shaped by political and cultural tradition. This, however, does not qualify as an argument for holding a new referendum. If we were to reexamine every election result because we thought some people hadn’t cast their vote for what others deemed to be the ‘right’ reasons, we’d be headed to the polls every day.


Written by Dr Mette Elise Jolly

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