Time to atone: The churches and the Alternative Vote

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
11 Mar 2011

Once in a while, the Church gets a chance to atone for its sins. The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster elections is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the Church of 100 years ago, which opposed the suffragettes, it will back the campaign for a fairer electoral system.

The episcopal purple should not be of a notably different hue from that worn either by today’s campaigners, or the women pioneers of the early 20th century. There is a strong theological and ethical rationale for voting for reform. The Christian bias toward the vulnerable, the powerless, and the voiceless sits uneasily with a first-past-the-post system that favours the powerful and the vocal.

As things stand, one rich donor can potentially fund a change of government by resourcing 100 or so candidates in a handful of marginal seats. And the existing system perpetuates unaccountability and inequality in other ways, too. In some constituencies, many votes are effectively wasted where there is no hope of unseating an MP. Many votes count for nothing with MPs elected on just 30 per cent of the votes cast.

There was a clear correlation between the safety of seats and involvement in the scandal over MP’s expenses. Many safe Labour seats, too, have seen turnouts diminish over decades, while levels of joblessness have risen, as successive Governments ignore their plight.

The AV system is a small change that could make a big difference. With its simple ranking of candidates and redistribution of votes, it would begin to address existing inequalities. For those in the churches frustrated at the narrow agendas in which contemporary political debate operates, the new system sets us on the path to a way out. At present, manifestos are geared toward appeasing the swing-voters of middle England in a few marginal seats, but AV means that parties will need to listen more widely to a greater range of voices. MPs would have to work harder to appeal to more voters.

But there is also a pragmatic case for church involvement. It makes sense for churches to be at the centre of the debate over constitutional reform. Local churches are ideally placed, as they are traditionally one of the main hosts of election hustings. And all denominations, to their credit, have been consistently vocal in urging people to register to vote and to consider carefully where they place their cross.

Indeed, to duck the issue of electoral reform now, when a system is on offer that would help to eliminate wasted votes, would not just be tragic — it would be downright embarrassing, particularly if the churches are not prepared to support the kind of reforms that they themselves have adopted for their own politics. After all, the General Synod uses AV’s proportional cousin, the Single Transferable Vote, for its elections.

The good news is that there already seems to be an appetite among individual Christians. A survey by the Evangelical Alliance at the time of the General Election suggested that, within its networks, “a change to the voting system so that it is more representative of the votes cast” was one of the top three political concerns. Those in different parts of the church with a more liberal bent, will also see the issues of justice. Indeed, already clergy are raising their voices publicly in support of fairer votes.

The AV system is, of course, not perfect. No system is. But it is a step in the right direction. And whatever we think about the way that the referendum has come about, we face a simple choice. The “no” campaign, led by politicians elected under the old system and with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, will argue that AV would give us coalition Governments (actually in Australia under AV they have had fewer hung Parliaments than we have under First Past the Post and it has delivered very stable Government). They will say that no one else uses AV (actually many countries are changing their voting systems and fewer are using First Past the Post). They will also fail to mention that political parties already use AV to elect their leaders, and the chairs of Select Committees in Parliament because it works well and produces the accountability they want, when it suits them.

The churches should be aware of the double speak, but also the myth that they can remain neutral on such issues. Systems are not value free. Staying silent after all, is to take a political position akin to Pilate, who washed his hands for fear of what people might think.

One hundred years ago, the suffragettes set fire to churches. The churches cannot afford to be 'burnt' once again. If there is a “No” vote on 5 May 2011, the opportunity to change the voting system will probably be lost to another generation. If the silence and inaction of the Church is partly to blame, it may be another 100 years before it has a chance to put things right.

Postscript: The "No to AV" campaign are claiming that I am suggesting in the last paragraph that churches will literally be burned if there isn't a Yes Vote (seriously!) so I have inserted quote marks around the 'burnt' in the last paragraph for clarity. For a further insight into the tactics of the "no" campaign see here

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This piece is adapted from an article for his regular Church Times column.

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