Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 24 April 2015

An unfair election


Although no one has any idea who'll win the election on 7 May, if indeed anyone wins, there is one absolute certainty: our voting system stinks.

Correction: the system we use for electing Westminster MPs stinks. Elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh and northern Ireland assemblies, the European parliament, the London assembly, and for the mayor of London all use a variety of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems.

Only Westminster still sticks to first-past-the-post. Does it really matter? It does. Because a system under which a party that could win a mere eight per cent of the national vote is still likely to end up with a couple of dozen MPs, whereas another party that may well win twice as many votes ends up with only a tiny handful of MPs, is patently, blatantly unfair.

The implications are potentially dangerous when you consider that the most unfairly treated party -- the one that could win around 15 per cent of the national vote -- is UKIP. And the party that is likely to win only half as many votes, the Lib Dems, could well end up either in government, or as the key supporters of a minority government.

Under a fair voting system, with 15 per cent of the vote, UKIP should have around 100 MPs. The Green party, which may pick up around five per cent of the national vote, should, in a fair system, see those votes translated into around 30 MPs. Instead, they'll be lucky to keep the one they've got.

Perhaps you remember that in the dim and distant past -- well, four years ago, in fact -- we had a referendum to decide whether or not to change the way we elect Westminster MPs. Fewer than half the UK's registered voters bothered to vote -- and of those who did, twice as many opted for the status quo as for change.

And if you can remember even further back, you may recall that in the run-up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair and the then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown discussed a possible coalition between their two parties, with a changed voting system as a key policy objective.

Now it's all water under the bridge. There was no Lab-Lib Dem coalition in 1997, and no referendum victory for the reformers in 2011. I strongly suspect, however, that the issue may well return after the election, if for no other reason that UKIP will complain long and loud about the unfairness of the present system.

It is deeply unhealthy if a section of the electorate, already feeling dangerously alienated from the political mainstream, believe, with ample justification, that they have been robbed of fair representation in parliament. You don't need to be an expert in European political history to work out where the dangers lie.

At this point, I suggest you make a note of the word "legitimacy", because I fear it's a word that's about to become woefully over-used. Dictionary definition: "conformity to the law or to rules; ability to be defended with logic or justification".

Could you defend, with either logic or justification, the current Westminster voting system? The traditional justification used to be that it produced strong, single-party governments, unlike all those terrible, weak European coalitions like in Italy, for example. (An alternative example of coalition government -- Germany, which is arguably the most successful European nation of all -- is less often cited by fans of first-past-the-post. I can't imagine why.)

Well, sorry, but that argument won't wash any more. A system that is both grossly unfair and also produces hung parliaments is all but indefensible, save for the valuable constituency arrangement that binds MPs to voters much more closely than party list systems.  The truth, however, is that there are plenty of much fairer voting systems that also retain a strong constituency link.

If after 7 May, we end up with a minority Labour government, supported by, for example, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the DUP, that'll be a pretty strong parliamentary bloc in favour of reform. So there may be a real chance of making progress, if party leaders can be persuaded to make time for a reform bill.

A system that effectively disenfranchises a substantial number of already alienated or disengaged voters is both indefensible and dangerous. But my fear is that MPs will still need to be pushed very hard to do anything about it.

As soon as the election is over, let's start pushing.





No comments: