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Why voting reform is now a matter of justice

by
22 May 2015

The election results make proportional representation all the more urgent and necessary, argues Martyn Jarrett

WHATEVER your politics, it might seem ungracious not to congratulate David Cameron on his electoral success. He has not only succeeded in remaining Prime Minister, but also presided over a Conservative Party that has secured a majority in its own right.

Only 12 days before the election, Peter Kellner was writing in The Sunday Times to say that, on the basis of the evidence, he had now changed his mind, and that Ed Miliband would be the next Prime Minister. Come the day, the pollsters were proved wrong. Mr Cameron became the first Conser-vative PM for a very long time to increase both the share of the vote and the number of seats gained by his party in the House of Commons.

The vote-share, however, rose by only just over half a per cent, and made up some 36 per cent of the votes cast. In contrast, the Labour Party's vote increased modestly by just under twice as much as the Conservatives, but, with about 30 per cent of the total poll, Labour saw its number of seats decline yet again.

The votes of the other parties, meanwhile, were shared out differently from the result in 2010. The Liberal Democrats' vote plummeted, as did their seat tally. Even with about seven per cent of the vote, they could hold only eight seats in a House of Commons of 650 members.

UKIP achieved some four million votes, but won only one seat - an outcome that makes the injustice to the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties across the past 40-odd years almost a sideshow. The Scottish Nationalists triumphed by gaining every Scottish seat save three, while needing to poll only about half the votes cast north of the border.

Such analysis conveys the impression that congratulations to Mr Cameron are as much the kind one might give to a lottery-winner as to someone who had gained the majority support of the British people and then formed a government on the strength of it.

 

ALL electoral systems have their flaws. The haphazard outcome of our first-past-the-post system is hard to equal in its unfairness. Despite the modest parliamentary majority gained on this occasion by using such a system, it cannot be denied that we now operate in a multi-party environment. Gone are the days when the two main parties could accumulate 95 per cent of the vote between them.

While there have been examples of poor coalition governments throughout the world, there have been arguably many more successful ones. The past five years have not been a disaster for the United Kingdom.

Proportional representation, in any case, does not necessarily exclude the possibility of majority governments' being formed. Scotland, and the Republic of Ireland, each with differing systems of PR, have both demonstrated in recent years that, when the electorate requires it, a majority government can be elected.

 

AS FOR the opinion polls, there was considerable impetus for tactical voting, as people heeded them. Mr Cameron was eager to ask both Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters to lend him their votes in order to keep out a minority Labour government supported by the Scottish Nationalists. How many did so, we shall never know. Given the inaccuracy of the polling, many might have cast their vote on a false premise.

In a proportional system, voters would at least have been enabled to cast their votes on a preferential basis, which would have showed politicians what the electorate's favoured outcome was, should there be no clear majority for one party. Our present system asks us to second-guess the outcome on what can often be faulty opinion polls or, even worse, spun statistics from political parties.

 

IT IS becoming normative for local elections to be conducted on the same day as those of our various parliaments. That does, of course, increase turnout, where previously there has often been minimal participation in the process. It still raises the question whether we want to move towards a United States-style system of candidates standing on a party ticket for almost every office under the sun.

Many of us went to the polls with little or no knowledge of the local issues to be resolved, and had to note only the party affiliation of the local candidates, for our guidance. It could be a coincidence that the number of successful independent candidates for local councils showed a significant drop. Paradoxically, however, local democracy seems to be further diminishing, even as the number of participant voters shows a welcome rise.

 

THERE are many invested interests. Buggins's turn will always motivate the larger political parties to tolerate the proportional unfairness of their own result, even when losing. Their turn will come to impose their will on us, even though they could not secure a majority of our votes.

Proportional representation is a matter of justice. It can and does work in many varied states and countries. We should go for it.

 

The Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett is a former Bishop of Beverley.

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