There are some peculiar numbers which should demonstrate, beyond any doubt at all, that the UK is not only an older democracy than the US, but it is vastly more democratic. These numbers are peculiar because they prove the opposite point. London has 650 MPs, compared to America’s 435 Representatives. The US has just 100 senators. In the UK, our upper chamber, the House of Lords has 804 peers plus 22 who are on permanent leave or disqualified from sitting. We have 65 million residents. You have 300 million.
If the US was just as democratic as the UK, given that you have five times the population, your lower chamber, the House of Representatives, would have an eye watering 3,250 Representatives. Imagine what Congress would look like. It would be like the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium! That this number is so absurdly high puts our broken democratic model into perspective.
What we have tried unsuccessfully to do is make the country into 650 chunks, each of which having the same number of residents. This is a hard task, made impossible by an ever-changing, fluid populace. The cities are growing at the expense of the countryside, and have been for a very long time. New villages and towns are planned and built, wrecking the parliamentary constituencies. Every time anyone tries to redraw them, the ruling party of the day is accused of a form of gerrymandering.
The reason we need so many, perhaps, is because so few of the constituencies ever change hands. What constitutes a ‘safe seat’ varies, and there are many definitions. Going into the 2010 election, the Electoral Reform Society suggested that fully 60% of all seats were safe. This means, for election purposes, they don’t count. By a very broad measure this means that 60% of voters needn’t have bothered turning out. Of course, not everyone votes, and voters in safe seats tend to vote disproportionately less often. They’re not stupid, and they’re all too busy with their own lives to vote. It takes something like Brexit, something truly momentous, to drag some people out to the polling booths. And that makes those major elections and referendums impossible to predict, which is why everyone in the know got the answer wrong. So many people voted unexpectedly earlier this year that it knocked out all the standard models, and everyone except YouGov got the answer wrong again for the second time in a year. That’s what happens when you trust pollsters.
What we need to do, alas, is be a little more American. We need fewer MPs who represent more fragmented interests than the current system was designed for. The minor parties argue for a form of partial proportional representation. It’s not a model Britain has ever enjoyed, and it would throw out the ancient practice of an MP representing a defined set of constituents. Your MP might not live in your area, even. We dabbled with something called the alternative vote, which means that the losing voters get the second choice vote cast to someone they didn’t really like in the first place. In a famous Private Eye cartoon, a voter can be seen filling out her polling card: my first choice is YES, my second choice is NO. Indeed. That system doesn’t work in Yes-No referendums. It famously resulted in the shock election as Labour leader of ‘Red’ Ed Miliband, narrowly pipping his more famous and better known brother.
So perhaps, on reflection, you can have too much democracy. Perhaps, if you have too many politicians, you don’t get your views represented any better at all. Perhaps, if there are so many, the system grinds to a halt. What does it say when a Prime Minister, as this year, wins the election but only barely manages to assemble a very weak government? Theresa May won the biggest share of the vote for the Tories since their 1983 landslide, and Labour increased its vote share massively too.
And all this before we even think about the defunct House of Lords. Even Tony Blair, who won some of the biggest landslide majorities in living memory, failed to make much of a job out of reform.