Yes to AV: The Case For Electoral Reform

Posted on April 8, 2011

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The first of a two-part series looking at issues surrounding the UK-wide referendum on the electoral system on 5 May 2011. The second part, No to AV: The Case Against Electoral Reform, has now been published and can be found here.

As a Cornishman I am sometimes tempted to feel sorry for supporters of the Labour Party in the Duchy. Of thousands of Cornish MPs over the years, Labour has had only five. They have not always been bastions of Socialism either – one defected to the Conservatives and became Vice-President of the Conservative Monday Club. The party currently has no MPs, and one Councillor. During local elections in 2009 they finished sixth, vanquished by the Green Party.

But Labour supporters in Cornwall cannot complain that their views are not represented at national level. Inevitably, not everyone can have a constituency MP with whom they identify, but in a representative democracy, everyone should feel that there is someone in Parliament with whom they can identify, who represents people like them.

In the 1955 General Election, 97% of the population voted Labour or Conservative. The current, First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system works well in entrenched two-party systems, where both parties form broad churches representing a range of interests. The United States of America is an obvious example. Almost all politicians are Democrat or Republican, and both parties have historically embraced a range of opinions. The Democrats once embraced everything from the progressivism of the northern cities to the overt racism of the Deep South.

In Britain we retain the two-party framework, but our political culture has ceased to revolve around two parties. Recent elections have seen around one third of the electorate vote for Labour, one third for the Conservatives, and one third for other parties. Last year, 35% of the electorate voted for parties other than Labour or Conservative, an increase of over 1,000% since 1955. Bearing in mind the decline in turnout, the proportion of the population voting for the main parties has fallen dramatically, and both parties have assumed a narrower – and increasingly similar – ideological focus. Fewer and fewer people are voting for parties which are less and less representative of public opinion, yet our system disproportionately favours these parties. Permitting voters to rank candidates in order of preference allows them to escape the tactical voting into which many are constrained by the current system, and may be a first step to overcoming some of the faults of the current political settlement. Winston Churchill once said that under AV ‘the most worthless votes go to the most worthless candidates’. But at least this is honest. The widespread tactical voting fostered by FPTP gives worthless candidates a veneer of legitimacy they do not merit.

Some demand that Parliament be made representative by ensuring that it contains certain quotas of women MPs, black MPs, disabled MPs, and so on. But in truth Westminster has never been so diverse in terms of ethnicity, social class, disability, and religious belief. The one area in which diversity is critically lacking is the area in which it matters – political opinion. Encouraged by the present system, politicians often appeal only to a wafer-thin slice of the population (middle-class swing voters in marginal constituencies) whilst those who are not represented either no longer vote or, as we have seen recently, turn to the streets to express their frustration.

As rational beings, men are endowed with the capacity to direct their own lives toward its proper goal, rather than being propelled by instincts as animals are. Whilst it is necessary that there be a single authority with ultimate responsibility for the common good (in the United Kingdom’s case, the Crown-in-Parliament-under-God), man’s rational nature requires that he be able to participate, if possible, in decisions which impact upon him, preferably according to the degree that they do so. Centuries ago, Parliament sat rarely and dealt with affairs which had little or no impact on the lives of most men, agricultural workers economically independent of the State who might never have met an employed agent of the State in their lives. That most people in the past did not have the right to vote does not reflect the supposed primitiveness of those times, but the small size of the State and the independence of the citizen from it. Times have changed, and people now live their lives within an economic and social framework rigorously controlled by the State. We recognised this by a process of progressive enfranchisement during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it may be time for electoral reform which demands more of voters in terms of intelligent analysis and forethought, and gives them a greater say in turn.

Defenders of FPTP have argued that under AV, by the redistribution of their secondary preferences, supporters of the British National Party (BNP) would have more of an influence on electoral outcomes than at present. I am not a supporter of the BNP, but I find the implied suggestion that we should rig our voting system to minimise the impact of people whose views are not considered ‘respectable’ to be profoundly distasteful. Since many who vote for the BNP do so not for ideological reasons, but because they are frustrated that no-one seems to take their concerns seriously, it is probably likely that fewer would vote for them under AV, since the nature of the system requires candidates to take a broader range of views into account in appealing to voters. The current system, where politicians ignore huge swathes of the population, and even tacitly admit that they are doing so and argue that the voting system should allow them to do so, is a recipe for social unrest and bad governance, both of which the UK has in abundance – hardly a good reflection on our political status quo.

Despite the excitement shown by many of its celebrity supporters, the truth is that the practical effect of changing the voting system is likely to be slight. But it may well be a change in the right direction, and the question is which direction we wish to take.

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Posted in: British Politics