The British political system is in bad shape. Mistrust of politicians is dangerously high, as Peter Kellner’s recent research shows, and voter apathy has increased dramatically over the past 20 years.
A major part of the problem is our dated electoral system. Our first past the post (FPTP) system means a candidate does not need to secure a majority of votes in their constituency, only the largest number of votes. Presently, in two thirds of seats, the MP has less than 50% of votes. No wonder people feel they are not well represented; the majority of voters did not vote for their sitting MP. Furthermore, nearly 60% of constituencies are seats which, election after election, always stay with the same party. No wonder people feel nothing changes; in many areas, it just doesn’t.
The public are clearly eager for solutions to improve the state of British politics—yesterday The Independent on Sunday published a poll claiming that nearly two thirds of voters are open to changing the current voting system. Crucially, over half of Conservative voters are open to persuasion. Conservative MPs should take note. After all, if they truly want a Big Society in which the public is engaged with politics, and if they truly believe in the kind of market-based reforms they are pushing through in education and health, then the Tories ought to get behind AV.
When reforming systems, Conservatives tend to look to how market forces can help. They favour policies that trigger greater competition between providers of goods, driving up standards to produce greater quality and choice for users. This, for instance, is the philosophy behind the government’s education policy. In theory, free schools and more academies mean more choice for parents, and therefore improved standards across the board as schools compete to attract students.
But when it comes to our voting system, the Conservative leadership seems to neglect this market-based thinking. Instead, it prefers the status quo: FPTP. Advocates say it is a good system because, above all, it is more likely to lead to strong, single-party government. But this argument simply defends producer interests and enhances the ability of politicians to govern easily.
If you are a fervent believer in democracy and the decentralisation of power, it is more important that the opinions of the voters are accurately represented and that they receive a better and more responsive service from MPs. In other words, it is crucial we apply Cameron’s zeal for “people power” and market-based reforms to political decision-making.
The system people can vote for in May this year—the Alternative Vote (AV)—would deliver such reforms to our politics. AV ensures that MPs would more accurately represent the people they serve, as they would need to secure at least 50% of votes in their area. There would be more competition between candidates since they would have to fight for more votes, leading to more responsive, representative and locally-focused politicians. As there would be preferential voting, voters would no longer need to vote tactically, but for the candidate they really want—giving them more choice.
AV should appeal to voters and politicians alike, since it would encourage a more dynamic and constructive political culture. Smaller parties would become more competitive, forcing sitting MPs and entrenched political institutions to pay attention to a variety of causes. Moreover, since many candidates will seek to secure the next preference of voters whose first choice was an opponent, AV might also reduce belligerent campaigning. The tiresome mud-slinging will be minimised, creating a more positive environment in which the demands of the electorate are prioritised.
Of course, changing our voting system is not the magic bullet. We also require other reforms, many of which the coalition government is bringing in: more referendums, the right to recall MPs, greater transparency, and issues raised by public petitions with high support debated in parliament. And, admittedly, AV may not be radical enough as a voting system.
But AV is far better than FPTP, which is a central feature of our current broken political system. Electoral reformers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to convince the electorate to deliver a better electoral system. We cannot squander the chance. Conservatives should seriously look to their guiding principles—people power and market-based reforms—when deciding how to cast their vote in the upcoming referendum.
For more on this topic, see: Anne McElvoy on why not to vote for AV and Peter Kellner on why electoral reform won’t just change the way we choose MPs, but the way we do politics