I was struck by an image a Facebook friend (of the Green variety) posted on his Facebook page the other day. It showed, with respect to the General Election that had just taken place, the Conservatives, Labour and especially the SNP having done particularly well out of the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system that operates and the Lib Dems, Greens and especially UKIP having done particularly badly. At the extremes, the SNP with their 3.85 seats in Parliament for every 100,000 votes cast, contrasted markedly with UKIP, with their derisory 0.03 seats which, taken across the whole of the UK, meant the SNP gained 56 seats having polled 1.5 million votes and UKIP gained 1 seat, having polled 3.9 million votes.
While different interpretations can be made of these statistics, this struck me as grossly unfair, yet the UK continues stubbornly with its FPTP system and justifies doing so. My mind went back to when I was at school when I studied British Constitution at GCE O’Level, a subject I took a shine to. One of the topics that I studied was the various possible voting systems and the advantages and disadvantages of each. It is with a certain irony, given at the time I held left, radical political views, yet was also of a view that FPTP was still the best of the bunch and that because the electorate in each constituency could choose the candidate they wanted to represent them, and FPTP more likely led to stable single party governments as opposed to the weak coalitions that had been seen elsewhere.
Understandably, in the aftermath of the election results, there was a call for electoral reform, which led me to the Electoral Reform Society website in order to gain a better understanding. I was impressed with its opening statement: “The Electoral Reform Society operates on a simple premise – that politics can be better than it is. We are campaigning for a better democracy… Our Vision is a representative democracy fit for the 21st century. We know that every year that passes with our steam age political system still in place is a missed opportunity for the people of Britain”. While I sense there was an agenda and a bias (where isn’t there one) I found the information it provided to be particularly helpful.
As a result of what had happened, with now 5 rather than 2 or 3 serious players compared to the past, I wanted to re-acquaint myself with the different voting alternatives and their pros and cons. I was reminded that part of the deal the Conservatives struck with the Lib Dems after the 2010 election was to have a referendum on alternative voting methods. The question put to the electorate in 2011 was: “At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?” On a 42% turn out, twice as many voted “No” as voted “Yes”. The alternative vote system is one of several, some with subtle variations. Some of those I spoke with, who favour electoral reform, preferred the single transferable vote system. Rather than try to explain AV and STV and deliberate on strengths and weaknesses, I would refer folk to the website.
While undecided on what works best, I believe a proper debate is needed. I felt uncomfortable in the election just past, the likelihood of unseating a candidate I didn’t want was nigh impossible (and it has long been like that in constituencies where a party had a large majority) and the system conspires to play rivals off against each other, and in this case there are many more against the candidate with the most votes that for. It also seems a travesty that parties like Greens and Lib Dems, and especially UKIP with wide appeal but spread right across the country, should have so few seats.
I believe this debate is part of a much larger debate to do with electoral reform and British democracy. I suggest that the following are some of the important questions there should be answers to:
- In the election that has just gone, only two thirds of the electorate voted, and some only reluctantly. What needs to happen in order to engage voters better?
- Are the constituencies that are represented in the UK Parliament appropriately defined?
- From the election that has just gone, we have seen a Conservative government formed, yet the majority of Scottish people voted SNP, ideologically poles apart from that of the Conservatives. How do we go about resolving this discrepancy?
- What needs to be done to satisfy Scottish, Welsh and Irish aspirations, who if they had been allowed would have opted for something other than a Conservative led government?
- Even without electoral reform, how do we accommodate the concerns, aspirations, contributions and insights of the majority of those from England who voted other than Conservative?
- In recent years, some of the powers of Parliament have shifted to unelected bodies in the UK. To what extent has this happened and how does this now need to change?
- Many laws affecting our lives are not made by the UK Parliament but come to us from within the EU, over which we have little control. Is this a good thing and if not what should be done?
- Under the last Parliament, there was a move toward localism e.g. seen in the passing of the Localism Act, in order to give local communities more say over what happens in their communities. Has that made a difference and if not what needs to happen next?
- While the House of Lords has undergone wide scale reforms in recent years, it is still an unelected and unaccountable body. What could / should be done to change this?
- In recent years, there have been moves to curtail freedom of speech and of conscience, often with good intent. How do we safeguard such freedoms while protecting the common good, which many see as an important part of our democracy?
Finally, I should make a salutary, philosophical point. As one of my friends constantly reminds me: “we are where we are”. Greater minds than I have argued for change and change if any has come slowly. What we do need is greater engagement with this far from perfect system that presently exists by more people and more intensely. I hope by throwing in my two penneth and getting involved at the coal face where this matters is my involvement.