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Time for the C of E to preach what it practises on elections

21 October 2022

If proportional representation is good enough for the General Synod, why not for the country’s voting system, asks Colin Buchanan

CAN we change our Government? The standard answer comes: “We live in a democracy, and you have the vote: you can change the Government at the next election.”

But this assertion is sadly misleading; for, in our first-past-the-post pattern of voting in single-member constituencies, the results in elected MPs may far from reflect the wishes of the voters.

Governments have often been elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote. In the 2019 Tory “landslide”, even if the result was enhanced by the party’s Brexit policy, the Conservatives still won only 43 per cent of the nation’s votes. Yet that gave them a commanding majority in Parliament.

How, then, can the individual voter change this unfair make-up of Parliament?

In up to half the seats, either Conservative or Labour is so secure that votes for or against the chosen safe candidate make no difference. Some millions may vote all their lives without ever helping to elect anybody. Certainly, in marginal seats, just a few “swing” voters may determine who is elected; and occasionally real surprises happen. Votes that are split three or four ways can provide an unforeseen result: sometimes, the election of the least-wanted candidate with 35 per cent, or less, of the votes.

It is all capricious. Yet various past governments have provided more enlightened forms of representation for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; our political leaders do actually know what counts as justice in voting systems, but they shut their eyes to any change at Westminster lest their own party suffer. Both main parties have clung to this unjust system, because it gives them hopes of getting an overall majority (irrespective of what the voters actually wanted).

But now, wonderfully, the recent Labour Party Conference (News, 30 September), where key constituency activists have been joined by the trade unions, has voted in favour of introducing proportional representation, and this should be in the party’s manifesto at the next General Election.

If the change came, it would mark an enormous change in British political life: up to 80 per cent of the voters would find that they had helped to elect an MP, and supporters of third and fourth parties would be released from being pressed into “tactical” voting (i.e. where people vote for someone they don’t want, to keep out someone else whom they want even less). Voters would be positively supporting persons and causes that they really wanted to support — and seeing results that reflected it.

THE Labour change of policy could hardly be more timely. It needs to be aired and debated when no immediate election is in view. At election time, no one wants to hear the electoral system denounced: all are engaged on voting within it. A serious critique is best raised when no election is imminent; and readers whose MP is Labour would be wise to stiffen their determination, as the prospect (which is dawning) of their gaining power with that overall majority may yet blind them to the issue of justice in representation, to which their conference flag was nailed.

Anglicans, I submit, should make the case loudly and sustainedly. Why? Well, because we ourselves use the single transferable vote (STV), the best form of proportional representation, to elect our General Synod, and to elect committees within the Synod. Thus we elect bodies with a true cross-section of our multi-faceted Church to represent us. We can trust the outcome of elections.

Using STV, we hold the high moral ground, and should preach from it — yet, sadly, we fail to preach what we practise. Three times in the past, the General Synod has called almost unanimously on the political parties to adopt STV as a policy, but the Synod has not spoken in that way for 19 years.

I SALUTE our leaders, not least archbishops and bishops, for their readiness to confront injustice in legislation or actual political practice, but I never hear them question the country’s unjust electoral system. The Synod has never instructed the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops’ Council to address electoral systems at all.

Obviously, when elections come, bishops live within the system, and simply advise us to vote responsibly — and such advice sits badly with telling us that the system is so unfair that we may be wasting our votes wherever we put our crosses.

But now, at some distance from an election, cannot our leaders mount an ethical case for STV, and stiffen the politicians to act righteously when the opportunity comes? If we raised a prophetic voice, others would hear us. If our leaders hesitate, is there not someone in the Synod to initiate a campaign? The future of the government of our country is at stake.

The Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan is a former Bishop of Woolwich and a former hon. president of the Electoral Reform Society. He is the author of An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform (Grove, 2015).

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