Electoral reform: one out of four ain’t good enough

Pic: Wikipedia

It’s Parliament Week here in the UK and what with the Brexit vote and the Trump vote there’s plenty of food for thought.

Mr Trump’s ability to enter the White House having lost the popular vote is not a cause for British smugness. Since World War II the loser has taken power twice in the USA – but that’s true also in the UK (though in the case of October 1974 the joke was probably on Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan).

That a party can win a majority on 36.9% of the vote, with part of the nation (Northern Ireland) unable to vote for that governing party, seems inherently wrong. The SNP, with 1.5 million votes, have 56 MPs. The Liberal Democrats, with 2.4 million, have eight. Ukip, with more votes than the two of these put together, have one.

Brexit has made matters worse. Not just because the tactic about ‘defending the NHS’ was actually trialled, successfully, during the referendum on AV. But because for those of us who live in England, the European Parliament was one of the few places that we could be guaranteed – because of proportional representation – to have at least one representative we voted for. Personally, outside the European Parliament, I haven’t voted for a winning candidate or cause since about 2006, despite nearly 100% participation. So the one bit of control I’ve had is being taken away. I’m sure I was promised quite the opposite.

Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with plans that will disenfranchise us further. The idea of reducing the size of the House of Commons is cynicism masquerading as idealism: a gimmick produced so that David Cameron could exploit post-expense scandal discontent. Mr Cameron seemed to have less of a problem with increasing the size of the House of Lords for partisan gain.

Still, here we are, and the Boundary Commissions have got to work drawing up new proposals for the UK’s political map. Now is the time to comment on their work (here’s a link to England’s), but it’s worth just thinking through what our objectives for a new electoral system would be.

Ideally, we will end up with the position that one person’s vote is equal to another’s. Let’s see whether the proposals measure up:

Constituencies should have roughly the same number of electors. The Boundary Commission haven’t done too bad a job, based on the information they were given. Most of the new seats are within the new, more narrow tolerances.

They would be based on up-to-date information. FAIL. The new proposals are based on out-of-date information. People who registered for the first time to vote in the referendum aren’t included. In any case, ideally the boundaries would be based not on the register but on the census as we would know how many people are eligible to register: as it stands, the new system will bake in historic low registration levels in certain inner cities.

Your chance of being represented by the person you voted for should be increased. FAIL. In a first-past-the-post system, theoretically, the larger the number of MPs, and the smaller the constituency, the more your vote should count. It is believed that the new system would have delivered the Conservatives a larger majority at the last election on the same number of votes. So it would be unfairer than even now.

The executive will face at least the same amount of scrutiny. FAIL. There will be 50 fewer backbench MPs to call the government to account (unless the government reduce the number of ministers from the Commons by 50, which as far as I know they have not proposed).

So the government’s plans fail to improve our democracy. One out of four ain’t good enough. But I think we should in any case be asking further questions after Brexit. Is it wise to have a Parliament that is supposedly sovereign again with loads more work but fewer MPs? And we should look again at proportional representation – not AV but actual PR: first past the post is great for strong government but only at the expense of making a divided country still less at ease with itself. It’s time to have a serious discussion about our electoral system. Let’s reconsider votes at 16. And, by the way, since this is Parliament week, let’s look again at moving the Commons out of London while Westminster is being rebuilt. I hear Birmingham’s lovely at this time of year.

Constitutional and electoral arrangements can be geeky. But as we’ve seen from the States, the system you choose can end up giving a loser untold powers. Have a look at the proposals. See what you think. Have your say.

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