One of the many reactions to the result of the General Election earlier this year was a renewed call for electoral reform. The reason for this can be shown by a simple analysis of the number of votes needed for each seat in Parliament for the different parties:
|Votes per seat
This is very clear indication of the system falling well short of its claim to be a ‘representative’ democracy, and in the election itself it means there is disproportionate reward for those who cunningly target marginal seats or marginal interests, rather than those who give proper account for their policies or manifestos. It has been pointed out that Labour’s victory in 1997 was similarly unrepresentative—but the disparity between the bottom four parties is particularly shocking, and contributes to the fact that we have never actually had a Government that the people want, as measured by their behaviour at the ballot box:
Let me explain. In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives.
Rather predictably, all interest in reform has been swamped by reports of the death of the Labour party, even if some think the reports are exaggerated. But the concerns should not be forgotten, since this election was the most disproportionate in UK history.
- 50% of votes in the election (15m) went to losing candidates, while 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’ – i.e. they didn’t contribute to electing the MP
- 2.8m voters were likely to have voted ‘tactically’ – over 9% of voters
- Under a more proportional voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – the Conservatives would have won 276 seats to Labour’s 236, while the SNP would have secured 34, UKIP 54 and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats – in Bristol and London
- The ERS was able to call the winner correctly in 363 of 368 seats – a month before polling day – due to the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under First Past the Post
- This election saw an MP win on the lowest vote share in electoral history – 24.5% in South Belfast
- 331 of 650 MPs were elected on under 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30% of the electorate.
In a new Grove booklet, Colin Buchanan, formerly Principal of St John’s Nottingham and Bishop of Woolwich, makes the case for reform. Though Colin is best known as a liturgist, he has always taken a keen interest in elections and voting, and for many years was nnorary President of the Electoral Reform Society. This is an area where, just for once, the C of E leads the field; it has practised fair voting in its central bodies since 1920, and uses Single Transferable Vote (STV) in the elections to General Synod which are happening later this month.
Colin first explores why our current system, First Past the Post (FPTP) remains in place—essentially, because those in power would only be in power under this system, so have a vested interest in defending it. Through an analysis of the results of the General Election, he highlights eight injustices in the present system: disproportionality; randomness; using a bad system to get a ‘good’ result (stability); tactical voting; disincentives to run for seats; wasted votes; misrepresentation; a closed book of candidates. This is a long list of problems—though for me the most serious is misrepresentation. As Colin explains (p 19):
It is basic to Westminster thinking that there should be single-member constituencies. Thus, when the result is declared in a constituency, the newly elected member not only pats their own party on the back, but charmingly expresses the intention of serving the whole constituency, representing in Parliament all the inhabitants, whatever their own views or voting habits have been. We can quickly admit that any responsible MP will take up individuals’ needs in the constituency without regard to their political outlooks, but that, I submit, is minimal representation’ and was only minimally in view by the electors.
The underlying moral issue in representation is that the ‘losing’ voters, not least those who have lost consistently in the same constituency for 40 or 50 years, have as their member one who in no way represents their outlook or policies, but expresses in Parliament and around the country a position which they abhor, one contrary to their views. Any system based on single-member constituencies is open to this frustration; but in a safe seat the defeated voters remain defeated indefinitely, without hope of changing their representation, and in a marginal constituency there is a further element of make believe and deception in any claim that the voters are represented by a member elected by 40% of the votes cast. We need another hard look at single-member constituencies.
One of the supreme ironies of resistance to electoral reform is that, if we were to move to STV, it would also address another constant irritation in the current system—the tension between an individual candidate and the party they represent. Many electors either like someone’s party, but find them unsatisfactory, or conversely warm to a person but don’t agree with the person’s party policies. STV offers a way out of this dilemma, as Colin sets out in the final chapter. If (for example) a four-seat constituency, where the four are elected by STV:
- Each candidate can be carefully placed into the preferential order—if the one labelled ‘1’ is eliminated as a no-hoper, the vote transfers to ‘2.’ Instead of all candidates but one being labelled ‘totally unwanted,’ each is now wanted in this carefully enumerated pref- erential order. The voter does not vote against any candidate—save by locating the seriously unwanted at the bottom of the preferences.
- There is therefore no possibility of votes being split, and the whole concept is mercifully dismissed from consideration.
- There is an end of tactical voting. Instead, the voter expresses honestly the actual order of preferences they hold. There is no more doing evil that good may come.
- Safe seats are virtually doomed. Where four seats are to be decided, in the outcome at least two parties will elect candidates, and quite possibly three or four. It follows that there are bound to be contests to change the distribution and thus, although one or two members may look fairly safe, every vote is likely to count in deciding the less certain third and fourth places. The voter has therefore the incentive to vote. No vote will be wasted.
- Major parties have to run two candidates, perhaps three (and will do themselves no harm if they run four). Thus supporters of those parties can choose between the candidates themselves, and the individual gifts, style, bearing and outlook of each has weight in the voters’ arranging of their preferences. Men and women, black and white, old and young, professional politicians and gifted amateurs, all come into account as a party nominates its candidates—the caucus shortlists, but the voters then decide.
There is a powerful case for Christians to campaign on voting reform as a justice issue.
Keep your leaders up to the mark—we hold the high moral ground in electoral procedures. We should be prophesying from it.
You can order Colin’s Grove booklet online at the Grove website and it will be delivered post free in the UK. Order two and send one to your MP. Order five and you get a discount!
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