Less becomes more in Westminster elections

Gwion Malik says the Government’s approach to reform is making it more difficult to secure a consensus on change

Today’s MPs have the weakest mandate in the history of democratic elections to the Westminster Parliament, according the Electoral Reform Society. As the website Politics.co.uk has pointed out, more than two-thirds of MPs cannot claim consent of even 50 per cent of their voters, thanks to the arbitrary ‘winner-takes-all’ nature of our elections.

This statistic should be enough to convince democrats of all political shades of the need to reform our electoral system and adopt a system such as Alternative Voting (AV). This allows voters to cast their votes in order of preference – as opposed to putting just one cross next to a single candidate’s name. Those with least first choice votes get knocked out and their votes are redistributed until one of the remaining candidates reaches the 50 per cent threshold. However, more fundamental reform is needed.

Firstly, under the current system, winning parties can govern on a minority of the votes cast. Indeed, no post-war party has won a General Election with more than 50 per cent per cent of the overall vote. Losing parties invariably have a higher percentage of the vote than the winning party, yet they remain in opposition. It is this anomaly that brings into question both the legitimacy of Government and the fairness of our electoral system.

Secondly, a substantial number of people opt out of the political process altogether. For instance, in the 2010 General Election turnout was just 65 per cent – meaning that the remaining 35 per cent of the population chose to stay at home. As such, the percentage of votes a winning party receives is smaller again when factoring in those who are eligible to vote.

The democratic deficit inherent in the British political system was laid bare in the 1983 General Election. The Tories polled a total of 13 million votes, Labour 8.5 million and the Liberals 7.8 million. As such, the Tories formed a Government having received 3 million fewer votes than Labour and the Liberals put together. The Conservatives also received a lower overall share of the vote, just 42 per cent compared with the combined 53 per cent of the two main opposition parties (27.5 per cent for Labour and 25.5 per cent for the Liberals).

Equally, in 1997, Labour’s landslide election, the Labour Party received 13.5m votes, the Conservatives 9.6m and the Liberal Democrats 5.2m. So the opposition parties again had an overall majority of the votes (14.8m compared to Labour’s 13.5m). Labour received a 43.2 per cent share of the vote in that election while the opposition polled 47.5 per cent (Conservatives 30.7 per cent and the Liberals 16.8 per cent).

So less, in this sense, really is more. Incredibly, the winner can accrue fewer votes than the losing parties, have a smaller proportion of the votes but still have more MPs. In the Mother of Parliaments, voters have to make do with governments that represent a minority view.

So, have voters been denied genuine representative government? Unless those governments are coalitions, which can combine their share of the vote, then the answer has to be yes. Most progressive politicians agree that the resulting democratic deficit is not just politically corrosive but also morally bankrupt.

This has far-reaching consequences for centre-left parties, which are marginalised in the competition for power. For example, during the course of the 20th Century the Conservative Party was in power for 70 years, despite consistently polling a smaller percentage of the vote than the two main parties on the centre-left.

Given this fact, there is a compelling case to support not just the introduction of AV, but full Proportional Representation. Under such a system every vote is given equal weight with the seats a party wins directly reflecting the number of its votes. In Wales, a third of our Assembly members are elected by way of PR and there should be no reason why at least this measure of proportionality cannot be applied to Westminster elections as well.

Such a political settlement would provide parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as smaller minority parties, such as Plaid and the Greens, with an improved chance of being in power. It would also ensure that future General Elections are not held to ransom by votes cast in a handful of key constituencies.

However, despite the arguments that favour a move towards full PR, the Coalition Government has committed itself to a referendum on the more limited AV system. While even such a move is long overdue and in most normal circumstances ought to be embraced as an important step along the reforming and progressive path, we should pause to consider the consequences of the deal presented to us by the Cameron-Clegg team. The Coalition claims AV is necessary because it would:

  • Make the system fairer.
  • Ensure elected MP’s secure at least 50 per cent of their constituency vote.
  • Democratise a system that is in desperate need of reform.

However, the danger is that we are being bounced into quick-fire reforms that have been drawn up with a different agenda in mind. Opponents (mainly the Labour Party) have claimed the proposals involve ‘loading the political deck’. Secondly, there is the accusation of ‘gerrymandering’ – that is to say, changing constituency borders to favour the Conservatives in particular and disadvantage Labour.

The charge of ‘gerrymandering’ has already been dismissed by some commentators. For instance, James Graham of the Guardian (28 July 2010) said: “Every time a Labour politician uses the word ‘gerrymandering’ a puppy dies. There is a lot of cant being fired off on both sides of the debate raging around the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, but the ‘gerrymandering’ charge is perhaps the most overblown aspect of it.

Whatever position or view one takes on the matter, three facts cannot be easily overlooked. Firstly, the Coalition Government has tied major electoral reforms to the AV Referendum that have nothing to do with AV. These changes include reducing the numbers of MPs and changing constituency sizes. Secondly, the Coalition has opted not to have these additional reforms (which are significant in themselves and over and above AV) scrutinised by a cross-party electoral commission. Such a move would quickly and easily avoid the accusation that a party is ‘gerrymandering’ the system. And, thirdly, the Coalition alone will draft the referendum question. Given the serious concerns raised above, all parties should be involved in the drafting process.

Given the extent of the reforms proposed in the new Bill, it is right and proper for the Opposition (in this case Labour) to scrutinise the legislation and to propose workable amendments. Labour has done both of those things, so the counter-charge of mischief-making is a flawed one. Moreover, it is clear that Labour also supports the AV referendum (given their commitment to it in their 2010 manifesto), so the accusation of deliberate derailment is also wrong.

The Coalition Government is unwilling to take the single, straightforward step that would resolve the issue overnight. It is refusing to de-couple the AV referendum from the boundary and constituency changes which should be dealt with independently with full cross-party support. The suspicion is the Coalition want to avoid the impartial eyes of an independent commission because their reforms are inherently biased.

With its majority the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government at Westminster can force through legislation that is directly designed to benefit them. This means Labour will now also be forced to campaign against the Alternative Vote which it had originally supported.

Gwion Malik, a probation officer and member of Swansea Labour Left, is seeking selection onto the regional list for the Labour Party in Mid and West Wales in next year’s Assembly election.

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