Political reform must include fair votes
The denial of parliamentary representation to large numbers of voters is a crime against democracy
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 29 May 2009
Alan Johnson is right. David Cameron is wrong. Electoral reform must come before political reform. Only MPs who are elected fairly can legislate legitimate parliamentary reforms.
We need to end the stranglehold that the three main parties wield over the democratic process, often for their own narrow, sectarian advantage. The election of MPs with minority support in their constituencies, and the denial of parliamentary representation to voters who back smaller parties, has more than a whiff of totalitarianism.
Fair voting means dumping the corrupt first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that allows governments to win a majority of seats, and force through their own legislative agenda, based on a minority of votes. We need a new voting system to ensure that the full spectrum of voter opinion is represented in the House of Commons. Only then can political reform have moral authority and a public mandate.
The Electoral Reform Society has produced a damning analysis of the anti-democratic nature of the 2005 general election. It shows that Labour won 35% of the vote but secured 55% of the seats. Of the total eligible voters, almost twice as many people didn’t vote (39%), compared to those who voted Labour (less than 22%). Despite being supported by only a fifth of the registered electors, Labour breezed back into power with an overall 66 seat majority.
I don’t like the Conservatives but they were cheated at the last general election, which makes David Cameron’s opposition to electoral reform so perplexing. The Tories polled more votes than Labour in England but won 92 fewer seats. Other parties got a raw deal too. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) polled 603,298 votes nationwide, and the Green Party won 257,758 votes. Neither party won any seats; leaving their voters totally disenfranchised and alienated by the electoral system. This denial of parliamentary representation to large numbers of voters is a crime against democracy.
The FPTP voting system worked well when there were only two parties. But we now have with five significant UK-wide parties: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green and UKIP - plus nationalist and other regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. FPTP is ill-suited to this multi-party political landscape. It thwarts the will of the voters, leaving millions without political representation in parliament.
According to the Electoral Reform Society, not a single MP now in the House of Commons won the votes of more than 50% of the eligible voters in his or her constituency. A mere three MPs secured the support of more than 40% of their electorate. Conversely, three candidates became MPs with fewer than 20% of registered electors voting for them.
This is not democracy. The Mother of Parliaments has become the Thief of Political Representation. The House of Commons needs to be cleansed of MPs who owe their seats to the unjust voting system.
Although the present electoral system is biased towards Labour, it was previously skewed to favour the Tories. These flaws are long-standing. No post-1945 government has won a majority of the popular vote; all have ruled on the basis of minority electoral support. Even Margaret Thatcher’s landslide majorities in the 1980s were based on popular votes of less than 44%. During the Iron Lady’s hey-day, a majority of voters were anti-Tory. The FPTP electoral system prevented the anti-Tory parties, which had a majority of the popular vote, from winning a majority of the seats in parliament and forming a government.
Without FPTP, we would never have had the Thatcher-Major governments and never had New Labour rule by Blair and Brown.
The rot has got to stop. We need a House of Commons that reflects the people’s will; where the proportion of seats won corresponds to the proportion of votes cast. In other words, a fair voting system, to ensure that every vote counts, that the government has majority support, and that parliament represents the full spectrum of voter opinion.
There are two similar frontrunner proportional systems. The first is the one recommended by the Jenkins Report. Known as Alternative Vote Plus, it involves electors voting for a constituency MP by numbering each candidate in order of preference. Voters then have another ‘plus’ vote for candidates from a party list, to elect ‘top up’ MPs to help correct any imbalance between votes cast for a party and seats won in the constituency section of the ballot.
The second proportional system is a variation on the first. It is the electoral method now used for the Scottish, Welsh and London elections – the ‘additional member system.’ Using first-past-the-post, electors vote for both a constituency MP and for a party. This combines the accountability of single member constituencies with additional MPs based on the total vote received by each party; thereby ensuring broad proportionality between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it secures. It works well in Scotland, Wales and London, why not at Westminster?
The solution is obvious. Let the people decide. We need swift all-party agreement that there will be a referendum on electoral reform at the same time as the next general election, and if people vote for change, that the subsequent general election will be based on a proportional system.
If David Cameron sincerely believes in “power to the people,” he should support calls for a referendum on electoral reform.
* Peter Tatchell is the Green Party parliamentary candiate for Oxford East and a supporter of the electoral reform campaign group, Make Votes Count www.makemyvotecount.org.uk
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