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This Isn’t The End of UK Electoral Reform

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Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies – that’s something that British political campaigners need to ponder this week after the heavy defeat of the campaign for the introduction of a reformed voting system for the House of Commons. (The weekend referendum saw the “No” campaign win about 69% of the vote.)

With understandable anger, some “yes” campaigners are going around saying “this is the end of political reform for a generation”.

Yet this is demonstrably untrue, because this month the government is expected to announce plans to reform the House of Lords (currently a mix of appointed and hereditary peers). Ideally this would involve a complete election of the house by proportional representation – certainly it will include at least some of this, if the government is to avoid a huge outcry.)

For the fact is that everyone knows that the existing first past the post (FPTP) electoral system is not what you’d introduce were you to start designing the British electoral system today. That’s not what’s been introduced for new parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; it’s a system that not one other country in Europe uses.

It worked well enough when the electorate was basically choosing between two parties, as it did for much of the 20th century, but as politics has increasingly diversified, more than 40% of voters voting for parties other than the “big Three” in the European Parliament elections in 2009, it is clearly no longer fit for purpose. Voters are forced to vote tactically in Westminster election – typically that means abandoning a candidate they prefer for one they can live with, in the hope of beating on they really dislike.

The proposed Alternative Vote system on which the UK was voting last weekend was a far from ideal replacement – an improvement, but a small one, and I think it is now true to say that it is dead in the water and won’t be revived.

That doesn’t mean that a campaign for a proportional voting system, one that delivers MPs in close proportion to voters’ wishes –- such systems are already used for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the European elections — can’t now get under way.

The British people last week voted against an inadequate
compromise for the voting system, which was poorly explained to them, while they were distracted by fripperies such as the royal wedding, by a campaign that was tainted by association with the “toxic” Liberal Democrat brand and which talked down to them while failing to rebut the often risible claims of the “no” campaign. They didn’t vote for FPTP.

It was a mess, but not a mess fatal for electoral reform. We’re going to continue to see Westminster byelections and elections deliver results that patently fail to reflect the wishes of the voters – and those voters, when presented with a proper choice of systems, properly explained, will vote for change.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • AV has been rejected.
    FPTP is broken, it produces unfair results, and many people know their vote won’t make any difference.

    Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting) is a more democratic system because each vote in every constituency makes a difference to the election result.
    It provides a way of introducing proportionality while retaining much of the existing familiar electoral system.
    It addresses the main criticisms of the FPTP and avoids the main criticisms of other proposed systems of electoral reform.
    It preserves the relationship between MPs and their constituents and doesn’t need frequent changes to constituency boundaries.

  • PR would certainly be likely to be boost turnout as everyone’s vote would count, in a way that voters who live in a “safe” seat know it now doesn’t.

    As you say Christopher, the Lib Dems are polling around the 10% level, which means very few seats… but there are others. Britain no longer has a two or three party system, but a multiparty one, distorted by the antique voting system.

  • The problem with FPTP, PR and AV is that only around 40% of the population votes in many countries. Perhaps a different approach would be to make it obligatory for everyone to vote…

    Doc, to correct your second point, the LibDems were an influential third part bloc but, after their complete betrayal of huge chunks of their platform in order to be in the coalition, they are more like a gutted carcase, as the results of last week’s elections confirmed.

    Unless they make some major changes soon, they may well be more or less completely wiped out at the next general election.

  • I generally align with the Liberal Democrats on most issues but I’m against them on PR. FPTP has its flaws, but it almost always delivers stable government and most studies have shown that introducing PR wouldn’t have much of an effect on the overall result of elections.

    If it ain’t broke, as they say…

    Back in the days when the Libs/Alliance were getting a quarter to a third of the vote and still only ending up with half a dozen seats in the Commons, there might have been a case for PR. But they’re now an influential third party bloc, which is how I like it and is representative of the party’s standing with the electorate as a whole.