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Is proportional representation a justice issue, as Bishop Jarrett argues?

29 May 2015


From the Revd Peter Ould

Sir, - The article by the Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett about the urgent need for electoral reform (Comment, 22 May) is ultimately an argument by assertion, and certainly not in any way a matter of justice.

It is debatable whether any one form of voting is morally superior to another. It is an entirely subjective argument that says that forms of proportional representation (PR) are more just than plurality voting. PR always (with the exception of the additional-member system as used in Germany and Scotland, and even in those places there are problems) destroys the link between a constituency and a single MP, thereby making individual MPs less accountable to their electorate.

In countries with a strict list PR system, constituencies end up having allocated to them an MP who may not even live within 100 miles. Even under the additional-member systems, half the MPs don't have to try to do anything for specific constituents.

At the end of the day, the decision on which electoral system to have comes down to two things. First, there is a choice of how proportional you want the final parliament to be. Some people prefer proportionality, but it is ultimately a subjective opinion whether that is desirable. If Bishop Jarrett wants to argue that there is some objective morality that means that a representative democracy needs to be highly proportional, by all means let him have a go. I can't see it in the Bible anywhere. You may think PR is more "just"; I just don't see it.

Second, there is a choice to be made about how accountable MPs are. Single-member constituencies lead to direct local accountability. Start moving to the single transferable vote, and you water down that direct connection. If you have straight national PR, then you lose that local accountability altogether. For some, this notion of local accountability is a factor that makes first-past-the-post far more just than PR systems.

The choice of electoral systems is a trade-off of benefits and drawbacks. By all means argue for one position or the other on the basis of the particular aspects of the system you prefer, but let's put on to one side the nonsensical notion that PR is intrinsically morally superior to first-past-the-post.

3 Goudhurst Close,
Canterbury CT2 7TU


From Mr Michael R. Cavaghan-Pack

Sir, - Proportional representation, for which Bishop Martyn Jarrett makes an impassioned plea, was rejected in the 2011 referendum by 67.9 per cent to 32.1 per cent. He makes no mention of this, presumably because he believes right is on his side; but at least he did not follow European practice by demanding a rerun on the grounds that the wrong result was reached!

Of course, the New Testament way of electing to office is by the casting of lots (Acts 1.26). Were this adopted for national elections, randomness would be combined with a measure of proportionality in an exciting new way; and, in one fell swoop, opinion polls would be rendered defunct and the funding of political parties unnecessary, and a huge saving in electoral costs would be garnered for everyone.

The Manor House,
Somerset TA2 8RH


From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan

Sir, - It was good to read the article by my friend Bishop Martyn Jarrett about electoral reform. While I strongly endorse what he has written about the recent General Election, I wonder whether he has been too modest on behalf of the Church of England in omitting any mention of our corporate witness to fair voting by our use of the single transferable vote (STV).

This came in at the very birth of the Church Assembly in 1920, when Parliament itself had gone near to introducing it for general elections. Not only has the central body of the Church of England sustained STV since then for its own election processes, but three times at least since the General Synod started it has called almost unanimously on the main political parties to adopt STV as part of their own policies for constitutional reform.

The disadvantaged smaller parties see this need clearly; the larger parties, greatly advantaged by the disproportional returns from first-past-the-post, have generally declined to notice. We ought to go on pressing them: it is a justice question.

And with our own General Synod elections due this autumn, all the licensed clergy and all the lay electors from each deanery synod will find themselves using this just system of election, and will be able to see the results in those elected. As we hold the electoral high moral ground (and ought to be preaching more strongly from it), we would be wise both to get our minds round it, and exercise our full set of preferences within it. Long may it last and its use expand.

(Hon. President of Electoral Reform Society, 2005-12)
21 The Drive,
Leeds LS17 7QB


From the Revd Julian Dunn

Sir, - If the UK Government is the government of all the people, surely all the people should be involved in its election. A number of countries, e.g. Australia, have compulsory voting, a reform that Bishop Martyn Jarrett seems not to have considered.

One third of the electorate did not vote on 7 May and, ever since the poll tax, an unknown number have failed to register; but I have yet to hear a politician of any party advocate what would surely constitute a universal suffrage.

Timbles Brewery,
Lewington Close,
Great Haseley,
Oxon OX44 7LS

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