Rubicon crossed on fair votes

The 2010 election campaign has exposed our corrupt electoral system as never before

Whatever the result of tomorrow’s election, one thing the campaign has demonstrated above all else is the endemic corruption of our voting system. What we have is a postcode lottery in which the power of your vote is overwhelmingly determined purely by where you live.

This has been made transparent in the 2010 campaign by the emergence of the Liberal Democrats as an effective third force. As many polls have indicated, by the end of tomorrow there is every possibility of the Liberal Democrats polling more than Labour and only a little short of the Conservatives but ending up a poor third in terms of seats. Whatever happens we can be sure that seats will be distributed entirely out of proportion to the overall votes cast.

If we look back at the 2005 general election, more than half of all voters voted against their winning MP and the same will happen tomorrow. As has been pointed out on countless occasions during this campaign, the only voters with any real power to choose the government are those who live in marginal constituencies.

But fewer than 20 per cent of constituencies are marginal. So we can be certain that around 60 per cent of seats, and probably many more, will not change hands tomorrow.

The overall consequence is that, if you don’t live in one of those marginals, you will have negligible influence the outcome of the election. This is why the system is so endemically corrupt.

If you want a statistical demonstration of this truth, you need go no further than an extraordinarily valuable website which demonstrates that we simply do not have one person one vote in the UK. Deploying a statistical Voter Power Index analysis, produced by the New Economics Foundation, it shows that, in fact, the average person in the UK has 0.25 votes.

The New Economics Foundation has ranked all 650 parliamentary constituencies by the relative power of their voters, calculated on the basis of the probability of seats changing hands and their size. In some ultra safe constituencies the value of the vote falls to practically zero. The range starts at 1.308 for the most powerful, falling to 0.004 for the least powerful.

Good news for some Welsh voters is that they are amongst the powerful in the land. This is because we have some of the most marginal and smallest constituencies in the UK. In fact three Welsh constituencies are at the top of the league and another two are in the top ten in the Voter Power Index :

  • Arfon is first out of all constituencies in the index. Here each elector has the equivalent of 1.308 votes, which is 5.17 times more voting power than the UK average.
  • Ceredigion ranks second with each elector having the equivalent of 1.220 votes, that is 4.83 times more voting power than the UK average.
  • Clwyd West come third with 1.217 – that’s 4.82 times more voting power.
  • Preseli Pembrokeshire is sixth with 1.036 – 4.1 times more voting power.
  • Aberconwy is ninth with 1.018 – 4.03 times more voting power.

By comparison Islwyn ranks at position number 642. A vote in Islwyn is worth just 0.004 of the UK average, which means that the average UK voter has 50 times more voting power than voters in Islwyn.

This fundamental and universal inequality in the relative values of our votes spells out the unanswerable case for reforming the system. As the Voterpower website puts it, if we had proportional electoral system:

  • We would no longer have safe seats.
  • The power of votes would be much more equal.
  • All areas of the UK would have equal power to decide the outcome of the election.
  • Politicians would not be able to win an election by tailoring all their policies to a narrow section of the population.

Reflecting on the blatancy of the injustice in all of this, it strikes me as amazing how we’ve lived with it for so many decades. In some ways its equivalent to other injustices that were so built into the culture and the background scenery of society that they were taken as given. Its hard now to think that at one time, not so long ago, discrimination based on colour and race was considered ‘normal’ in many societies, not least our own. So, too, was discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

In all of these cases a point was reached when the mask slipped and nothing could be the same again, however long the actual change then took to put into effect (and in some cases is still taking). Whatever the outcome tomorrow the demand for electoral reform has entered the mainstream. The endemic injustice, and indeed corruption of the British voting system has been exposed as never before.

Labour calls for tactical voting, not least by Peter Hain, merely make the case for not having to resort to it at all, by having a system that renders it unnecessary. Labour’s eve-of-election and death-bed conversion to the alternative vote – which is not a proportional system – is now unsustainable.

Even if the Conservatives, the party most resistant to any change, were to secure a majority tomorrow, it will only be small and unlikely to last a full term. All-told another general election may be upon us sooner rather than later. And when it comes the demand for electoral reform will be an inescapable part of the debate. A Rubicon has been crossed.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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