ONCE in a while, the Church gets a chance to atone for its sins. And, with just six months to go until the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster elections, it has a golden opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the Church of 100 years ago, which opposed the suffragettes, it will back the campaign for a fairer electoral system.
The episcopal purple should not be of a notably different hue from that worn either by today’s campaigners, or the women pioneers of the early 20th century. There is a strong theological and ethical rationale for voting for
reform. The Christian bias toward the vulnerable, the powerless, and the voiceless sits uneasily with a simple first-past-the-post system that favours the powerful and the vocal.
As things stand, one rich donor can potentially fund a change of government by resourcing 100 or so candidates in a handful of marginal seats. And the existing system perpetuates unaccountability and inequality in other ways, too. In some constituencies, many votes are effectively wasted where there is no hope of unseating an MP.
There was a clear correlation between the safety of seats and involvement in the scandal over MP’s expenses. Many safe Labour seats, too, have seen turnouts diminish over decades, while levels of joblessness have risen, as successive Governments ignore their plight.
The AV system, with its ranking of candidates and redistribution of votes, would begin to address such inequalities. For those in the churches frustrated at the narrow agendas in which contemporary political debate operates, the new system sets us on the path to a way out. At present, manifestos are geared toward appeasing the swing-voters of middle England in a few marginal seats, but AV means that parties will need to listen more widely to a greater range of voices.
But there is also a pragmatic case for church involvement. It makes sense for churches to be at the centre of the debate over constitutional reform. Local churches are ideally placed, as they are traditionally one of the main hosts of election hustings. And all denominations, to their credit, have been consistently vocal in urging people to register to vote and to consider carefully where they place their cross.
Indeed, to duck the issue of electoral reform now, when a system is on offer that would help to eliminate wasted votes, would not just be tragic — it would be downright embarrassing, particularly if the churches are not prepared to support the kind of reforms that they themselves have adopted for their own politics. After all, the General Synod uses AV’s proportional cousin, the Single Transferable Vote, for its elections.
The good news is that there already seems to be an appetite among individual Christians. A survey by the Evangelical Alliance at the time of the General Election suggested that, within its networks, “a change to the voting system so that it is more representative of the votes cast” was one of the top three political concerns. The AV system is, of course, far from perfect. Strictly speaking, it is not proportional. But it is a step in the right direction, and one that could open up further change and greater fairness in the future.
One hundred years ago, the suffragettes set fire to churches. We cannot afford to be burnt once again. If there is a “No” vote on 5 May 2011, the opportunity to change the voting system will probably be lost to another generation. If the silence and inaction of the Church is partly to blame, it may be another 100 years before it has a chance to put things right.
Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.