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OPINION: the voting system is broken, it’s time for change


Have you ever felt your vote didn’t count? The turnout in both national and local elections suggests that a lot of people share that view. But by not voting they might be altering the course of history.

Illustration: roberuto

In 2012 less than a quarter of Bristol’s electorate took part in the referendum over whether the city should have an elected Mayor, and barely 12% voted in favour. Now the rest of us are saddled with a system that 88% either opposed or did not understand.

This was a not altogether unintended consequence of the 2011 Localism Act which was supposed to devolve power to local communities but instead vested power here in the hands of one person, and undermined the role of elected local councillors.

For an electoral system to be be truly representative you would think it needs as many people to vote as possible, but the current ‘first-past-the-post’ system for national and local elections would still be unfair even if everyone did vote.

More often than not the majority of those who vote do not get the representative of their choice. And while Britain’s archaic, unwritten constitution requires those elected to represent ALL their constituents, resentment still festers among those whose choices always fail.

“Oh, you mean UKIP and the BNP should have seats in parliament?” I hear some say. Well, yes, as it happens – but only if they are winning enough votes. Excluding their voices merely drives their members to further extremes – whether it’s street violence or seeking Russian gold to engage in dubious tactics; and it limits the opportunities to challenge and defeat their odious views.

Under the current system and taking all the votes cast into consideration, at the 2017 election UKIP polled almost 600,000 votes yet won not a single seat. Meanwhile it took less than 28,000 votes to elect a Scottish Nationalist MP, little more than 41,000 for a Plaid Cymru MP, just under 43,000 votes to elect a Tory, and just over 49,000 to elect a Labour MP. By the same token almost 200,000 votes were required to elect a Liberal Democrat, and the 525,000 plus people who voted for the Green Party were rewarded with a single MP.

Proportional representation (PR) is a much fairer system. But it sounds a complicated alternative – which is probably why few people bother to consider it. In fact PR, in its many different versions, has been in use in the UK for generations, and no-one seems to have noticed.

The ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) allows people to rate which candidates they prefer with a simple number (1,2,3, etc). If no-one gains 50% or more of first preference votes, the one with least first preference votes is eliminated and their votes redistributed. This continues until someone does have more than half of all the votes cast. That is how Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, and Vince Cable for the Liberal Democrats. AV is used in Irish Presidential elections, as well as American local elections, and parliamentary elections in Australia and Fiji.

The similar Supplementary or Contingent Voting system, used in recent mayoral elections, allows voters to indicate their first and second preferred candidates. If there is no outright winner, then all but the top two are eliminated with any second preference votes for the remaining candidates added to their totals.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) gives each voter one vote, but they may also indicate an order of preference among other candidates. If their chosen candidate has no chance of winning, their vote is transferred to the next candidate they prefer, until an outright winner emerges. The National Union of Students uses this method, as does the Northern Ireland Assembly, local elections in Scotland and most elections in the Republic of Ireland. It is in use across Europe, and in elections to the Australian Senate, the upper house of India’s federal parliament, as well as for all elections in Malta, local elections in New Zealand, and for the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

Then there is the Party Lists (PL) system. With ‘Open Lists’ voters vote for individuals, with ‘Closed Lists’ they vote for the political party. Those obtaining most votes win. With ‘Closed Lists’ an appropriate proportion of those selected by the party to top their lists are the ones elected. We’ve been using this system for elections to the European Parliament in England, Scotland and Wales. It is also used for Holland’s second chamber, and a significant proportion of those elected to the Egyptian and Israeli parliaments.

Trying to iron out the inconsistency and unfairness of the current voting system can lead to awkward and risky ‘tactical voting’ – switching to a candidate you think most likely to beat the person you don’t want to win. For precisely that reason Labour’s Chuka Umunna argued for a shift to proportional representation, in The Independent in May:

The [current] system in effect creates false electoral deserts where whole regions of the country are dominated by one party despite their opponents recording substantial numbers of votes. The whole unfairness of the system and lack of political diversity is what leads to these calls for tactical alliances of the progressive kind in certain regions.

Of course it helps if each constituency contains about the same number of voters, and boundary changes are not made to favour one party over another. But if we are to enliven democracy at a time when extremist parties are gaining ground elsewhere because fewer people are bothering to vote, proportional representation has much to offer.

The argument for reform of Britain’s electoral systems has been around for a long time, but the unfairness of the outcome of the last general election has generated a fresh surge of interest. A new national campaign, Make Votes Matter is now underway, and I for one hope that it succeeds.

Mike Jempson is writing in a personal capacity. A former Board member of The Bristol Cable, he is a journalist and trainer and Director of The MediaWise Trust.


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