Why I am still an electoral reformer: After the referendum

May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, that’s that. AV has lost the referendum, the rest of us can go back to nice safe FPTP which produces good clear results and everything will be fine. Or at least, that’s the narrative that the Conservatives and much of Labour, not to mention the press, would like to have injected into every household in our country.

Not this one.

It seems foolish, ridiculous, even quixotic for me to be making a post in favour of voting reform after it was rejected by 67% of the voters in a crushing referendum victory for our current First Past the Post system. It probably looks fairly churlish, the moanings of an upset loser. But then again, if I cared about any of that I wouldn’t be writing this now. What I care about, what I will always care about in regard to this issue, is working towards a future where people’s views really count. I am a democrat; I believe that we as the people of Britain have the right and the duty to self-determine our futures. It is obvious even from a fairly cursory glance that our current system is failing at that job.

It is, at its core, an issue of fairness against unfairness. The only argument that can be made for non-proportional, non-preferential systems is that they are simple and decisive. So is the one party state in China, a system which I eagerly await a referendum on adopting backed by those who believe that a decisive system is best. Yes, a change in voting system might mean more hung parliaments and coalitions; surely, that is a small price to pay for people actually having their voices heard. Anyone who’s watched the pantomime of Brownite/Blairite splits in labour will know full well that coalitions have no monopoly on split governance; in fact, by formalising it instead of forcing opponents into a few huge parties they often lead to a more professional approach. The worries about “backroom deals” are similarly groundless, as in a better voting system it’s far easier to vote a party out of existence if they’ve gone back on their election promises.

The fact is that First Past the Post (a misnomer in itself, since it doesn’t even HAVE a post) is an unfair and undemocratic system. There are people up and down this country whose votes will never send an MP to Westminster purely by accidents of geography; so much of the time people realise their vote means nothing, and so they simply don’t vote at all. The reason for this is that with First Past the Post as long as around 40% of voters support a party, it is rare in our current 3-party system for another party o be able to muster the same level of support. So even if the remaining 60% of voters hate candidate A and would all rather candidate B, unless they all vote tactically for B to keep A out (and so the views of voters for C, D, and E are wholle ignored) then A will win. When a candidate CAN get 50% of the vote the situation is even worse. The rest of the voters stuck in that constituency now never have a way of getting their voices heard; they stop bothering after a while. The seats become “safe”, party fiefdoms where only one party has any say at all. Voices are drowned in an entrenched system where to vote against the norm is pointless.

So how could the system be improved?

Preferential voting systems, such as AV or Preferential Voting or the Single Transferrable Vote, are an improvement in getting people’s voices heard. The simple reason is that they ask people what they prefer – they allow people to give their full opinion not just a single cross in a box. The voting is done in several rounds, with everyone voting for their top remaining choice in each round. When seen this way, the fallacy of “some people having more votes” is revealed as a myth; some people are forced to change to a lower choice, whereas others are able to vote for the same candidate in every round. They’ve all voted exactly the same number of times, and unlike FPTP a) there is actually a post, at 50% of the vote (less in STV as there are multimember constituencies) and b) the candidate elected is the one a majority of people prefer not just the person who has the largest individual mob backing them. A preferential voting system therefore clearly gives voters more choice, more ability to express their views, and candidates who can actually claim to represent their constituency not just a third of it. I won’t go into the realpolitik, but it’s worth noting that preferential voting makes gains for extremist parties harder due to their lack of plurality support. All these points, however, are really comparatively small changes.

The far greater issue, which this referendum did not cover at all, is that our voting system is not proportional. That is to say, the number of seats a party gains is in no real way linked to its vote share. Labour won over 50% of the seats in 2005 with 35% of the vote; on the other hand, 1951 saw the Conservatives gain a majority despite Labour beating them in the popular vote. I can continue the list: 1983 saw a vote to avowedly anti-Conservative parties of well above 50% yet Thatcher got a stamping majority, the Liberals got 9% of the seats in 2010 even though 23% of people wanted a Liberal MP. If we even pretend to want a democratic system, we cannot go on like this. It’s simply not true that FPTP gives most people what they want – in fact, FPTP gives most of the UK’s electorate an MP they’d much rather get rid of and shuts many people permanently out of the democratic process. By a simple system of decreasing the number of constituencies slightly and adding regional top-up lists for the votes that were not used up in constituency ballots, we could make a huge change to how representative our voting is even without switching to a preferential system.

Make no mistake, this matters.

Why? It matters because we will never engage people in democracy if we hold to a system where more often than not their votes count for nothing. It matters because a safe-seat system entrenches boring, managerial politics and drowns out other voices. It matters because nobody has all the wisdom, and only by hearing from everyone in this country will we be able to build a future that is better than our past.

Finally, it matters to a pensioner in Lincolnshire. My grandfather has voted in every election since the 1930s, and has not once cast a vote under FPTP that sent an MP to Westminster. He has believed in Electoral reform all his life – not in order to make things more complex, not to gerrymander results, not for anything more complex than wanting to be able to have his voice heard and be represented in our democracy. I don’t think I need to tell you that he doesn’t want to talk about what happened yesterday. Or that it’s now quite unlikely that he’ll live to see a system where he can fulfil the simple act of having his voice heard.

And so it’s important to me too. I believe in electoral reform for the sake of my family, for the sake of fairness, and for the sake of my country. The defeat of the AV referendum is a setback, and it shows among other things both the power of the vested interests who want to keep their safe seats and the work still to be done in showing the 27% of people who voted against reform (that’s not a mistype either, it includes turnout figures) of the benefits of a better system. It’s not time to give up hope though – it’s time to restart the fight in earnest.

As for myself, I am still an electoral reformer. I will be be fighting for a better system as long as there is breath in my body and blood in my veins. While it won’t be easy, I hope that in time all who are in favour of fairness will be standing with me.

Oh, and first post!

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