Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Making Votes Count: The Norwich South Question

In a democracy, supposedly everyone counts equally - my vote is supposed to have the same value as anyone else's. Otherwise, it wouldn't be democratic, would it? If my vote was worth eight times more than someone else's, it would hardly seem fair,equal or democratic. Who could reasonably argue with that?

Yet in Britain in 2010, a Labour supporter's vote was eight times more valuable than a Green Party voter's. And while Labour won a seat for every 33,000 votes polled and the Conservatives for every 35,000, it took 111,000 for the Lib Dems to win each of their seats. Depending on the analysis, somewhere between 15.7 million and 21 million of the 29.5 million people who voted, simply wasted their time going to the polling station because, in the end, their votes counted for nothing.

If it was Zimbabwe or Iran or Venezuela, there would be an international outcry. Sanctions would be called for, the perpetrators of such grossly undemocratic methods denounced on the international stage. But, in Britain, for once after a few days of negotiations, the Queen simply appointed a new Government and things carried on.

Well, on 5 May, Britain will have a referendum on whether or not to change the voting system that allows this calumny. We can choose to move away from the current "first-past-the-post" system, where whichever candidate in a given area wins more votes than any other individual candidate is elected. Superficially, this may seem alright, until you reflect on the fact that as we live in a multi-party system, this means nearly all of our Members of Parliament have been elected with more people voting against them rather than for them - their victory has come about purely because they have been the largest minority.

Winning Where? 71% of voters opposed this winning MP.
 As a result, at the last election, of 650 MPs elected, 432 had more voters supporting other candidates than supported themselves. Over two thirds of our MPs are not mandated by a majority of the people who voted in their constituencies - 111 MPs were elected with less than 40% of the vote in their area, with the lowest "winner" of all being Lib Dem Simon Wright in Norwich South, who represents his area with just 29% of the vote - 71% of the local voters chose others, but go unrepresented, their votes wasted in the "first-past-the-post" lottery.

The track record nationally is just as abysmal. Labour were elected in 2005 with over 55% of the seats on just 35% of the national vote. In February 1974, the Conservatives won more votes than Labour, but fewer seats and so lost; while back in 1951 it was the other way round - Labour actually won 200,000 votes more but 26 MPs fewer than the Conservatives. In the 1983 election, Margaret Thatcher gained a seat for every 11,000 votes she lost and the Tories were declared victorious by a landslide - with just 42% of the vote.

There are alternatives: different forms of proportional representation (PR) are used in every European country - even in Berlusconi's Italy after a brief flirtation with the British system. PR systems are also used for the London Assembly, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures and Scottish local councils.These ensure that as far as possible, the number of seats won by parties are of a similar proportion to the votes cast in the election. So 40% of the vote gets around the same proportion of seats.

Depending on the system used, the degree of proportionality varies, and some have links to local areas, some have none, some have a mix. The former SDP leader, Roy Jenkins, proposed a mixed system for Britain back in 2001, but after commissioning Jenkins' Report, then PM Blair chose to ignore its findings. Consequently, when the Lib Dems held the balance of power after the last election, the betting was that they would demand such a system to be introduced in return for supporting a new Government.

As it was, they settled for less - much less. The anti-reform Conservatives conceded a referendum on the system known as the Alternative Vote (AV). This is not a proportional voting system and can distort national results almost as much as our current system. So most electoral reformers were sorely disappointed that the Lib Dems backed down so easily and totally. Many have indicated they will not support AV in the referendum and, even if they reluctantly vote for it, they certainly won't be out campaigning.

The disappointment is understandable and justified. But given that AV is all we have on the table, perhaps those supporting genuine reform need to be careful about opposing it, especially as the right wing media will portray a defeat as a decisive vote against any form of PR as well. Although it is decidedly not PR and not what genuine democrats want, AV is an improvement on what we have. This is because AV works by people ranking candidates in a constituency in order of preference, 1.2.,3. etc, instead of the current X. When the 1st preference votes are counted, if the top candidate has less than 50% of all the votes cast, the bottom candidate is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to the 2nd preferences of their voters. This process continues until the top candidate has over 50% of the votes cast and is declared elected.

It is very straightforward, uncomplicated and, in spite of blatant lies from its opponents about it costing £250 million, it would add only marginally to the costs of elections. It retains the constituency link for MPs and it also removes the so called "wasted vote" dilemma where many voters have to vote to stop someone being elected rather than for the candidate of their choice. The advantage of AV is that they could vote for their preferred candidate with their first preference and then put their second preference, and so on, next to someone else, knowing that their vote would not be "wasted". This would undoubteldy lead to much greater freedom for people to vote for different parties and perhaps begin to challenge the established system more effectively. And then we might see moves towards more proportional systems.

There are better systems than AV, but in their absence it is hard to see why anyone would prefer our current process over it other than those with a vested interest: and the fact that tonight members of the unelected House of Lords are doing all they can to sabotage the referendum is a disgrace of Mugabe-esque proportions. How dare these placemen seek to set conditions on democracy!

The logic of opposing AV is that it is acceptable for the MP for Norwich South to be elected with just 29% of the vote. The 71% voting against him do not count.

So the question for the "NO" campaign is this - if it is acceptable for this man to sit as an MP with such a low vote, would you be willing to accept that the "yes to AV" campaign could win the referendum with just 29% of the vote?

No, I didn't think so.

No comments:

Post a Comment