The British electoral system is an incoherent mess. There are, currently, six distinctive ‘systems’ operational in local and national elections*. Additionally the Scottish Referendum reduced the minimum voting age to 16. British democracy has many quirks, not least of which is ‘first past the post’. One consequence of this is that elections can be won by a single vote, or even on the toss of a coin.
There is no requirement to vote. Some elections have huge 80%+ turnouts, whilst others are a derisory sub-20%. British elections require no minimum turnout, nor a minimum margin of victory. David Cameron finds this unsatisfactory if and only if Trade Unions are conducting a strike ballot.
Following a series of damaging public sector transport strikes, all of which were democratically legitimate, David Cameron lost patience. In what should have been a carefully considered policy statement (but actually sounded like an emotional spasm) he said a future Conservative government would redefine democratic legitimacy for Trade Union strike ballots. This redefinition is both political and targeted. Indeed it is ‘red meat’ to his electorate. Unfortunately for Cameron he had inadvertently identified democratic problems within Britain. The principal problem is low turnouts with results that are a travesty for a participatory democracy.
In the 2014 local elections, six wards in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had turnouts below 30%. Turnout in the borough peaked at 35.8%**. This borough is an elected oligarchy. In Britain this is not an unusual. By-elections can be worse. The by-election held on 8th January 2015 in Bolsover***, Derbyshire had a turnout of 13.4% and the one at Gwynedd, Bowyedd and Rhiew (19 December 2014) was an unopposed election. (Technically, elections could be ‘won’ by a single voter, with every other voter abstaining.)
The reforms that Cameron is proposing are to be used if and only if a public sector Trade Union ballots members for strike action. Cameron’s proposal is that there should be a 50% turnout AND that 40% of the total membership vote in favour. This is improbable but not impossible. The September 2014 Scottish Referendum was a dramatic success with most Scottish constituencies having 80%+ turnouts with some peaking at 90%+. All the successful votes, either Yes or No, achieved the 40% benchmark. This, however, was the culmination of a hectic two-year campaign with massive publicity concerning an epochal decision: the unravelling of 300 years of history. Such a unique event can hardly be a paradigm for electoral reform.
David Cameron rightly notes that tiny minorities have a disproportionate impact when turnout is low. The ultra-Conservative Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a prime example but this doesn’t infuriate him. (Most British local elections have poor sub-50% turnouts****.) That we have democratic institutions does not guarantee democracy. Those institutions have had legitimacy hollowed out by collapsing participation. The current incoherent situation is very dangerous. It is not inconceivable that those who do have a coherent policy – the police, the armed services, the secret services – could de facto seize control.
*www.parliament.co.uk for details of the six forms of election in Britain.
**Source the website of RBKC under heading Local Elections May 2014
***Bolsover D.C., Bolsover North West
**** The European Parliamentary elections and the local government elections in England and Northern Ireland July 2014. English local government turnout was 35.6% in May 2014.