The blind voter

The case for electoral reform is stronger than ever. But it's still hard to see it happening
June 18, 2005
The general election result has hugely strengthened the case for electoral reform. Labour won an overall majority of 67 and a majority over the Tories of more than twice that, yet its share of the vote was just 3 per cent more than the Tory share. If the Tories had achieved a further swing of just 2 per cent, they would have won more votes than Labour, but Labour would still have had an overall majority.

Labour has a big majority while having won the votes of 21.6 per cent of the electorate. In less than a decade the proportion of the electorate choosing the government has fallen from one third to just over one fifth. Turnout hovered around 60 per cent for the second election in a row. As only the votes of middle voters in marginal constituencies count, it is perhaps surprising that so many people bother to vote, not so few.

Across Britain it took just 27,000 votes to elect each Labour MP to 44,000 for each Tory and 96,000 for each Lib Dem. No members of the House of Commons were elected by a majority of their electorate, and only 34 per cent of MPs won a majority of those who actually voted.

Questioned for the BBC/ITV exit poll, fully 18 per cent of voters said they had not voted for their first choice party for fear of their least liked party getting in. The British people may have got the bloodied-nose government they wanted but only by voting for people they didn't.

None of this constitutes an argument for pure proportional representation—the belief that seats should precisely reflect the party preferences of the electorates. I was a member of the Jenkins committee which was asked to recommend an electoral system which combined a number of not easily reconcilable goals: broad proportionality, stable government, voter choice and the maintenance of constituencies. Like Roy Jenkins himself, I believe that there is no perfect electoral system, but that does not mean that no system is any better than any other.

Jenkins recommended a blend of systems. For constituencies, nearly as many as now exist, voters would number the candidates in order of preference, with the second preferences of candidates at the bottom of the poll reallocated—the so-called Alternative Vote (AV). So there would be no more need to vote tactically. On top of this, there were to be small top-up lists, based on counties, which would make the system more—though far from fully—proportional.

What Jenkins was after was balance. And our system is now more obviously out of balance than it was when we reported in 1998. How likely is reform? Change will, of course, win the support of the Lib Dems but Charles Kennedy's influence with the government is not at its highest just now.

What of Labour itself? On the plus side, Labour did at least promise in its manifesto to set up a review of the new electoral systems in Scotland, Wales, for European elections and in local government. The review, which is already under way, is to advise whether change is also needed for Westminster, with any change being put to the people in a referendum.

This is promising. So too are signs that even some of those on the Labour side traditionally against any change are reconsidering their position. Some contemplate only the AV bit of Jenkins. This would deal with some failings of the present system, meaning for example that there would be no need for voters to vote tactically and that every MP had a majority in his own constituency. However, on its own the AV system is not more proportional than first past the post.

However, there is a problem with trying to win more interest from Labour MPs. In this election, the Lib Dems not only took 12 seats from Labour but became its main challenger in many more seats. It is, I fear, a fact of human nature that, when considering their attitude to change, many Labour MPs will think not only of the health of democracy or even the interests of party but of their own personal prospects of remaining in parliament. This may make some chary even of AV, let alone broader proportionality.

As a Labour man myself, however, I think this is short-sighted. This election has dispelled any illusion that the present system will deliver huge Labour majorities in perpetuity. A Jenkins reform, though it flattens the highs, also softens the lows. Reform is the surest way of ensuring that at some subsequent election, with the boundary commission eradicating some of the current pro-Labour bias and the centre-left vote divided between Labour and the Lib Dems, the Tories do not sneak through the middle to claim power on a share of the vote only somewhat higher than the 35.2 per cent polled by Labour.

Most intriguing is the Tory position. During the 1980s, in Mrs Thatcher's prime, the Campaign for Electoral Reform had the support of some 100 Tory MPs. More recently, however, opposition to electoral reform, like opposition to Europe, has become practically an article of faith. Only one Tory MP to my knowledge is prepared to say that he supports electoral reform.

But the plain unadorned fact is that the present electoral system makes it hard for the Tories ever to become the largest party in the Commons and virtually impossible—assuming Labour and Lib Dems supporters return to tactical voting—to get an overall majority.

If there is to be a change in the electoral system in Britain, it is desirable that it should have support from all three major political parties. Without that, it will struggle to get through parliament; and without that, the taint of partisan gerrymandering is likely to linger. Of the three main nationwide parties, the Tories will have to swallow most words to convert to electoral reform. However swallowing words should be a deal easier than swallowing the alternative: no serious chance of another Tory government. Ever.