AT THE last election, a fellow canvasser and I descended on a man, a woman, and a little girl who were sitting outside their home, enjoying the April sunshine. Seeing us, the latter two vanished indoors, but,
moments later, the little girl came charging back with excited expectation such as rarely greets canvassers. From within the house, Mum realised that the girl had misunderstood the explanation she had given of our visit, and called out: “Oh no, darling, they’re not that sort of party.”
Frustration with parties and the people who represent them underpins our forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV), a system favoured by the Bishop of Beverley, the Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett (Comment, 15 April), and a number of other Christians (News, 4 February).
The argument goes that our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is unrepresentative. This raises an interesting question: how can anyone or anything represent something or someone else?
This question is the crux of democracy, but is also profoundly Christian. We come from a faith of incarnation, in which, rather than being handed heavenly policies, we have received God’s incarnate Word. I am not claiming that God will be voting “No” on 5 May, but I do dare to suggest that there is something similar in the way we select people to embody values and lead a country.
It is certainly how voters behave, according to Drew Westen, an American neuroscientist, strategist, and adviser to the Democratic Party. His work has suggested the extent to which our weighing up of reasoned policies is complemented by emotional responses to values, and to the person of the candidate.
In the 2010 party-leaders’ debates, people warmed to Nick Clegg, but did not remember all of his policies. Professor Westen maintains that what voters get from a FPTP system is the chance to identify a person from a party, and his or her values, and vote for those. When electing a leader, identifying with candidates counts for a great deal.
Those who seek proportional systems fail to see the point at which they break down — representation shares the icon’s capacity to reflect, but not necessarily to be, that which it represents. Even if your opinion is represented by a candidate, it is unlikely that you agree with him or her completely on everything he or she stands for. It is ludicrous to suggest that we can create a system that reflects a nation’s every hue, accommodating, for example, the fact that 70 per cent of the electorate favours the return of capital punishment, and also that voters still elect candidates who do not do so.
Proportional systems land voters with coalitions, and these, by their compromises, distort representation. This is why the Trident-hating, fee-abolishing Liberal Democrat voters now live with what they see as the shame of the present Coalition Government.
When faced with the proportions in which the electorate cast its votes, Gordon Brown and David Cameron did not sit down and share out their policies. They each scrambled to court the third, small party — with the result that Conservatives are lumbered with this referendum, and Lib Dems are lumbered with worse besides.
Next time someone tells you that proportional systems produce a maturer form of politics, remember June 2010, when voters did not get a look-in, and the mature elders struck a dodgy deal, although not in front of the children.
AV itself is a classic example of the sort of miserable little compromise spawned by coalitions. Most fans of proportional representation dislike it, and even its supporters acknowledge that it will not improve proportionality. At best, Bishop Jarrett suggests, “it might help reduce the disproportionate size of parliamentary majorities.”
Statistically, I don’t believe this is true: AV actually increases landslides for those who win them, often picking up second- as well as first-preference votes. Yet, if AV is voted down next month, it will set back true electoral reform for another generation.
Not only is AV flawed: it also adds an unnecessary degree of complexity to elections. Many Christians say that they want to support a system that increases participation. That system ain’t AV, however.
Many others, including Bishop Jarrett, also suggest that proportional representation has been used effectively in European elections. Coming as we do from Yorkshire and Humberside, he and I share a British National Party MEP, which makes me wonder how effective the system has been.
Watch the election of Ed Miliband again, and see the most popular candidate leapfrogged by a second-best, simply because people who voted for neither of them did not think Ed was that bad, and gave him their second-preference votes. We risk adding an extra layer of alienating complexity, which is unlikely to inspire participation.
The Christian value often quoted in this debate is justice. I want to counter this with the importance of identity. The notion that, under the current and unjust FPTP system, the votes of many electors do not count is misleading. I have observed elections and seen people counting every ballot paper. Those who complain along these lines really mean that their votes have not elected a winner. Well, sorry: that’s democracy. It may not be what you wanted, but it is fair and open to all.
More important, it enables voters to identify people and elect them. No system can reflect the proportion of opinions within the electorate, but it is first-past-the-post that best enables voters to choose the people, from parties, who best embody their views. It takes ideas and makes them personal. It embodies values in people with whom we may identify. It takes word and makes it flesh.
Huw Thomas is the head teacher of a church primary school in Yorkshire.