Churches and the moral case for electoral reform

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
8 May 2010

The persistent theme from church leaders and religious groups during the election campaign was that Christians needed to get out and vote. What they entirely failed to address was “on whose terms?”

At one level this is surprising. The inherent injustice of the electoral system was brought into sharp relief long before the campaign began, with the clear correlation between the safety of MPs' seats and the scandals over expenses.

But while Archbishops were willing to speak out about the unethical behaviour of individual MPs, they bypassed entirely the fundamental structural immorality raised by the First Past the Post system.

The problem the Church of England, and those who support its current arrangements in public life face over constitutional issues, is one of moral authority – something that is crucial in the current negotiations around who might form a government.

Churches cannot comfortably highlight the lack of accountability, injustice and failings in the electoral system whilst themselves occupying 26 unelected places in the Second Chamber. Their closeness to government through establishment also means they have to careful not to be seen as meddling in party political affairs.

In that respect they share a little of the difficulty that the Supreme Governor of the Church now faces over her role in appointing a new First Minister in a hung Parliament.

But constitutions are moral documents – at least to the extent that they are written or codified. And the time is ripe for the church to be bold and take a lead.

With all the rhetoric of ‘fairness’ and ‘change’ that dominated the election campaign, ethics are on the agenda.

There is a clear challenge that can be made to all three parties following a result which has so far delivered neither. There is a moral imperative for parties to offer the country a just voting system based on proportionality.

Hundreds of voters may have been physically shut out of the polling stations. Millions of others might as well have stayed at home too. Their votes counted for nothing in the 400 or so safe seats that are the hallmark of our first-past-the-post system.

The outcome was decided not by people voting en masse as the churches urged them to do, but by the small number of marginals into which the parties ploughed their money, most notably the millions via Lord Ashcroft.

The fundamental democratic inequality - with some people’s votes being worth disproportionately more than others – has now been apparent for decades.

In 2005, candidates contesting the three-way marginal of Falmouth and Camborne, spent eight times more trying to win over local voters than their counterparts did in the ultra-safe Labour seat of Barnsley East and Mexborough.

There is also a clear relationship with economic inequality.

Almost two-thirds of seats with turnouts below 50 per cent in 2005 had ‘worklessness’ levels of 25 per cent or more.

It is not good enough for the churches to sit back and lament that they have once again failed to get many of the issues on which they care so passionately, anywhere near the narrow election agenda. All the big three parties wanted to keep nuclear weapons.

All bought into the ‘problem’ of immigration, rather than how we treat migrants.

All supported the invasion of Afghanistan. All talked about climate change, but as the Greens pointed out, stopped short of putting care for the planet at the heart of their policies.

But this too, is a result of the narrow focus on Middle England’s swing voters such as “Motorway Man” - crucial to victory in marginal seats.

Labour’s core electoral focus on the aspirations of middle-class voters has also been significant in prompting increasing numbers of voters in the most deprived areas to disengage.

If the churches want democracy renewed, a broader political agenda and a voice for the voiceless, they must make the case for PR and they must do it right now.

Their focus needs to change from choosing the right government, to changing the way we elect them, for good.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

Ekklesia is co-sponsoring and promoting the Take Back Parliament 'fair votes' initiative: http://www.takebackparliament.com/hope

This article is adapted, with thanks and acknowledgements, from a guest post on The Times newspaper's 'Articles of Faith' blog, written and edited by religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill - http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/

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