Reformers demand voting change

Renewed calls are made today to reform Britain's electoral system. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the options.LABOUR was re-elected for a third historic term in May with a clear majority, despite picking up just 36.

Renewed calls are made today to reform Britain's electoral system. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the options.

LABOUR was re-elected for a third historic term in May with a clear majority, despite picking up just 36.2% of votes, the lowest support for a government since the 1832 Great Reform Act.

Analysis of the result shows that not one MP was elected by 50% of his or her constituency voters and only two received more than 40%. Most of Britain's 646 MPs were elected by less than a third of voters and many of them by less than a quarter.

This distorted result arises because we have stuck rigidly to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) method of electing MPs. That was fine in the 19th century when we were a two-party state with only the Tories (Conservatives) and Whigs (Liberals).


You may also want to watch:


But when the Labour Party was formed early in the last century and started fielding candidates, there was no change to the system. The only requirement for a candidate to be successful is that he or she has a simple majority over the second placed person, even if that majority is just 1.

Today calls have been made to consign FPTP to the history books, to be replaced by a system decided by the voters themselves and not by one imposed by politicians.

Most Read

Campaign groups Charter 88 and Active Citizens Transform want to follow Canada's lead and set up a Citizen's Assembly to devise a new system. The two groups believe May's General Election is evidence enough that a change is absolutely necessary. They say Tony Blair's victory was not democratic, legitimate or representative - he achieved a majority of 66 seats despite 65% of people not voting for Labour candidates.

It took just 26,858 votes to elect a Labour MP but 44,241 to elect a Conservative and 98,484 to elect a Liberal Democrat. In England, 60,000 more people voted Conservative than Labour but Labour won 92 more seats.

The two MPs with the safest seats in the region are John Whittingdale in Maldon & Chelmsford East and Mark Francois, who represents Rayleigh which includes the Chelmsford borough areas of Rettendon and the Hanningfields.

Mr Whittingdale won with a majority of 12,573 supported by 51.49% of those who voted. But his 23,732 total was less than a third of the total electorate of 69,502. Mr Francois in Rayleigh had a majority of 14,726, 55.44% of those voting. His actual vote of 25,609 was just over 35% of the constituency's 71,996 voters.

PRESENTATION BILL

MPs backing changes will introduce a presentation Bill to Parliament along with a second on local government electoral reform in the autumn.

Campaigners highlight the May results in their report as clear evidence of the need an overhaul. John Jackson, Chairman of Active Citizens Transform, claims there is a "strong groundswell of opinion growing among those who believe that we need urgent constitutional reform starting with the way in which representatives are elected."

A review of voting methods used in UK elections is currently being carried out by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Officials will report their findings to a committee on electoral policy chaired by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

However, while Labour's May manifesto echoed the promise of reform first offered back in 1997 it stopped well short of promising changes to Westminster's first-past-the-post system.

Mr Blair has told MPs he cannot guarantee the review will result in a referendum on proportional representation and campaigners say a more open and transparent examination is needed. Charter 88 and Active Citizens Transform are proposing an assembly along the lines of that set up in Canada after repeated unrepresentative election results.

There a panel of 160 randomly selected people spent 10 months considering the problem before deciding on a change to the single transferable vote. The proposal was put directly to the country in a referendum without any Government interference.

It failed to get the 60% approval required for a change but Debbie Chay, of Charter 88, said a similar process could work here. "The results of the last general election in the UK underline the widening gulf between those in Government and us, the 'people'.

"To reverse this worrying trend, we must ensure that those of us who are affected are given a real voice in any key changes to the way in which we are governed."

Even though the outcome of the General Election was grossly unfair to the Conservatives, there is no sign the party backs change, basically because most Tories would rather MPs keep the constituency link instead of MPs representing a cluster of divisions.

The Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for voter reform, because under FPTP, the party cannot make a major breakthrough even though it is supported by around 20% of everyone voting.

There are a number of options a number. The French have run-off elections between the top two candidates if no-one achieves 50% of the vote.

There's the d'Hondt method which is used to elect European MPs. Political parties have a slate of candidates in each region, and the votes are allocated between the parties according to the total number of regional votes.

The 'advantage' is that it favours minor parties and is more representative. In the East of England, the UK Independence Party ended up with one MEP more than both Labour and the Lib Dems - and the Greens had Euro MPs elected in the London and South East regions.

The 'disadvantage' is that all Euro MPs represent the whole region and therefore voters cannot identify with one person in particular MEP.

Then there's the alternative vote, by which people have a second vote if their first preference is not elected by more than 50% of the total. But second preferences get elected, and the 1997 and 2001 General Elections, if this method had been in use, would have virtually decimated the deeply unpopular Tory Party as people registered "Anyone But Tories" ballots.

In Wales and Scotland, the devolved governments have two types of Assembly Member (Wales) or Member of the Scottish Parliament. A proportion are directly elected by first-past-the-post, and the remainder are top-up MPs taken from separate lists which is designed to produce a final result in proportion to the percentage of votes each party received in the FPTP election.

PREFERENTIAL VOTING

But do we really want MPs at Westminster chosen from a list, with no constituency duties and no local electorate to which they are accountable?

The system the Lib Dems back is the single transferable vote (STV), which is also favoured by the Electoral Reform Society. STV uses preferential voting in constituencies electing a number of members. Instead of voting with an 'X', electors cast their ballot by numbering the candidates in order of preference - 1, 2, 3 and so on.

Candidates don't need a majority of the votes cast to be elected, just a known quota or share of the total.

The Electoral Reform Society likes this system because, with voters able to rank all the candidates in order of preference, few votes are wasted, unlike in FPTP elections where the majority of votes often do not contribute to the result.

"If your favoured candidate has no chance of being elected, or has enough quota votes already, your vote can be transferred to another candidate in accordance with your instructions," says the Society.

"With FPTP, in many areas know that their favoured party or candidate has no chance of being elected, and therefore vote tactically for someone else. With STV, a voter can safely give their first preference vote to their favourite candidate because the vote will be transferred if that candidate cannot win."

How would this work in practice? Taking Suffolk as an example, under an STV election all seven existing constituencies would be grouped together. Given the way the votes stacked up in the past three elections, the result would have been three Labour, three Tory and one Lib Dem MP in 1997 and 2001, and four Tory, two Labour and one Lib Dem in 2005.

In fact all three elections resulted in five Tory and two Labour MPs.

The downside of STV is that counting the votes is such a lengthy procedure, we'd be waiting until Christmas for a result. And as with all systems of PR, we would have permanent coalition Government because the one thing first past the post mostly achieves is a decisive majority for one party.

IS THIS DEMOCRACY?

The 1992 General Election result in Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, saw the election of a Liberal Democrat MP supported by only one in four of those voting. The top four candidates were separated by just 1,731 votes. The result was was: Lib Dem 13,258 (26%), Labour 12,800 (25.1%), Scottish National Party 12,562 (24.7%), Conservative 11,517 (22.6%), Green 766 (1.5%). Turnout: 73.3%

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter