The time is up for first past the post

10 June 2009

The C of E has a position on fair voting, and its moment has arrived, argues Colin Buchanan

The count: ballot papers in Turf Moor Leisure Centre, Burnley, last Friday PA

The count: ballot papers in Turf Moor Leisure Centre, Burnley, last Friday PA

It seems an age since the Arch­bishops very properly called upon us not to vote for the BNP in the European elections. Beyond that, all they could do was to urge us to vote and to vote responsibly. But, since that call, the Government has vir­tually imploded, and cries have gone up for an immediate General Elec­tion — yes, and for constitutional reform. These in turn have been over­taken by the European election re­sults. This week, various minor­ities have been revelling in the support that they have won under the party-list system. Yet the outstanding winner has been the non-voter.

Christian leaders cannot enjoy urging people simply to vote and vote well. We sound vaguer than the politicians, as though we are wringing our hands on the touchline without even knowing whom to support. But we are absolutely committed to in­volve­ment in the political process: we do not believe that the Christian faith can be immured in some private pietistic locker.

We have a programme backed by experience, and suddenly an opening has been given it. Alan Johnson trig­gered this in recent public debate — and everyone now has to define how they relate to it. I refer to consti­tutional reform.

The Church of England has regu­larly taken a stand for justice in representation. In February 2003, the General Synod passed a motion by 226 votes to six which, along with some blandness, called on the Gov­ern­ment and the main political parties “to encourage and enable, by legislative and administrative action, and es­pecially by introducing propor­tional representation by the single trans­ferable vote for elections to Parli­ament, all members of our society to play a full part in our democracy”.

This is a sharp-edged call for a very specific change. It was the Church of England speaking out of its own long experience of the justice of using the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies. Our Synod is elected that way, and it began with the old Church Assembly in 1920.


Those who have ever cast their votes this way know that voting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” by preferences gives an ac­curate expression of the electorate’s wishes. This is quite unlike the first-past-the-post system of parliament­ary elections, where the crude “x” means the voter has to be totally in favour of one candidate, and totally opposed to all the others.

This fair system has preserved the true proportions of the voters, and — as accords with our theology of the Church — minorities have never been swamped out of existence by over­weening majorities.

At the same time, voters have been able to express preferences between in­dividual candidates of similar views. The persons elected are the ones the electors most wanted, and no serious complaints have ever arisen. The same cannot be said for parli­amentary or local-council elections.

There is a deeply moral factor in all this. Christians do not believe in subordinating the means to the end. STV is far and away the best way of getting fair means, which in turn entails a fair result.

The secular world has, however, been catching up with us — and not just in the student unions and trade unions, which are used to fair voting. In the 35 years that STV has been used in Northern Ireland, for every kind of election save that to the Westminster Parliament, the system has produced a fair result.

Whereas the minority community there knew until 1974 that it would always be swamped out of meaning­ful representation, since 1974, even while bombs exploded and amid all the accompanying recriminations, we have heard not a single voice to complain that this or that party was not properly represented.

With even less trumpeting in England, the use of STV in Scottish council elections in 2007 has broken the stranglehold of one party on more than half of the local councils, and all over Scotland has led to health-giving kinds of new sharing agreements be­tween parties.

Please don’t take that eyewash about needing first past the post to get “strong government”. Even if plaus­ible, this is a naked preferring of the result to the means. And it is not plausible: in the first place, all the signs are that first past the post will pro­duce a randomly unrepresentative assembly — whether one with a ludicrously large majority of one party, or one without an overall majority at all.

Second, there have already been six virtually hung Parliaments elected under first past the post in the past 16 elections.


Third, we do not neces­sarily benefit from an unchecked rampant “strong government” (and how much less if it was unfairly elected by a minority of the voters).

Fourth, it is difficult to believe that the two main parties believe it them­selves; for, when in opposition, they do their best to weaken the Govern­ment, and indeed revel in the rare occasions when they can beat it. All they mean is “strong government by us”.

A call is going up for a referendum on constitutional reform (once prom­ised, but never delivered, by the Blair government). Christians should join this call, and write to their MP, adding that it is STV on which we need to decide.

The last service the present dis­credited administration can do is to arrange for that referendum to come on the same day as the next General Election. A Parliament thus elected under the existing system could then be chartered by a refer­endum to re­form the electoral system, and go back to the country for fair elections.

At every point, we ought to pro­mote fair voting, call for reform to establish it, and back every initiative that will bring it on. We may well be at a hinge-point of constitutional history.

Dr Colin Buchanan is a former Bishop of Woolwich, and is the Honorary President of the Electoral Reform Society (;


Dr Colin Buchanan is a former Bishop of Woolwich, and is the Honorary President of the Electoral Reform Society (;


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