Politics for the people

By David Alton
10 Jan 2010

In 1968, aged 17, one of my first duties as chairman of my town’s branch of Young Liberals, was to organise a talk by the indefatigable Enid Lakeman of The Electoral Reform Society. She had been sent by Jo Grimond to tell us why we should support a change in the voting system.

Born in 1903, she died in 1995 at the age of 91. Having served as a radar operator during the Second World War in 1946, she began her life-long campaign for the reform of the electoral system – and in particular, the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

By 1960 she had been appointed as the Director of The Electoral Reform Society and during the years which followed, she addressed innumerable meetings, edited pamphlets, wrote submissions to official inquiries along with hundreds of letters to newspapers, and lobbied politicians and government departments. Her book, How Democracies Vote, continues to be a standard reference on the arcane subject of electoral systems.

In 1968 I listened attentively to the compelling arguments she advanced for STV. Forty years later, it is a great pity that she is not alive to contribute to the live political debate now underway about electoral reform.

Politics is always about timing and in the present political climate people are bound to question the motives of those who now say “change the system”. There is a great danger that the case for electoral reform could become contaminated by politicians muddling the genuine arguments which can be made for reform with cynical and belated attempts to sustain their own hegemony. Given the opprobrium in which Parliament is currently held, electoral reform could look like an oxygen line to a comatose and discredited system, a means of clinging to power, rather than as a central plank of a rejuvenated and reinvigorated democratic system.

It is also vital to challenge the assumption that any change is preferable to our existing arrangements.

Some forms of proportional representation are a hundred times worse than first-past-the-post (FPTP).

When closed party list systems of proportional representation were introduced for elections to the European Parliament, I opposed it, on the grounds that it was bound to open the way to groups like the British National Party and because it offends a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy: the right to vote for an individual candidate rather than for a party or its list. Party lists destroy the constituency basis of representation which is such a strength of our British system.

By putting power into the hands of political elites, closed party lists also compound voter alienation and encourage politicians to further detach themselves from direct community engagement.

Yet, first-past-the-post hardly inspires.

The last election gave the current government 55 per cent of the seats with just 35.1 per cent of the votes. This was the flimsiest basis for a Commons majority in modern British electoral history. If the steady trend of increasing support for parties other than Labour and the Conservatives continues, then such massive distortions will continue and potentially get even worse.

People are also increasingly aware that their vote will probably make absolutely no difference to the result, especially if they live in a so-called 'safe' seat. The feeling of powerlessness and alienation this creates is a major contributor to low turnout. In 2005, Labour was able to win power with the support of just 21.6 per cent of potential voters, thanks to the large numbers staying at home.

Just like closed-lists, safe seats can also lead to voter frustration. In Barking and Dagenham, for instance, the BNP are now the main opposition to Labour, with 12 councillors. Turnout in this area, where Labour has dominated for decades, was less than 40 per cent, making it relatively easy for the BNP to win seats on the council with minority support from voters.

Jack Straw has suggested that a good way to address this would be through the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV).

But, AV is no different to FPTP in denying voters a say in who will be the candidate for each party.

By contrast, single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party – a kind of built-in primary (without the extra expense). As each party has more than one candidate, there is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from under-represented groups (women, ethnic minorities etc without quotas).

Paradoxically, AV has the potential to be even less proportional than FPTP. AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons. Again, by contrast, STV is a highly proportional system, where parties’ seat shares closely reflect their share of the vote.

Under AV, a large minority (at least) of voters would not have a local representative that they supported at the ballot box. In contrast, after the 2007 Scottish local elections, which used STV, nearly three-quarters of voters are represented by their first-choice candidate.

Nor would AV do anything to end the relentless focus on a handful of key marginal seats which so distorts British politics. Under STV, there are neither safe seats nor no-go areas for any party. STV has the added advantage that it requires political parties to co-exist – as it has done to such historic effect in Northern Ireland.

In addition, under AV, constituents would still have just one local representative to turn to if they have a problem. Under STV, with multi-member constituencies, they would have a choice of representatives to approach.

The dying days of a Parliament (and probably a Government) must be the worst possible time to alter the voting system. It will raise the spectre of gerrymandering and Tammany Hall style politics. If there is to be a change to our voting system, let it be because genuine reform is long overdue. Let it have as its first requirement that an MP will continue to represent a defined geographical area and that votes will be cast for people, not parties. Any move to Single Transferable Votes or Alternative Votes would need to command wide spread support and should not, under any circumstances, be steam-rollered through as a last gasp political fix or as part of a political deal.

Should STV be introduced in Westminster elections, perhaps it should be called the Lakeman system – because no-one did more that that tireless and extraordinary woman to ensure that its virtues were fully understood.

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Lord Alton's debate on the impact of party list electoral systems on voter turnout, alienation and the rise of extremist groups, takes place in the House of Lords on Monday 11 January 2010.

(c) Lord Alton is a cross-bench peer.

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