Electoral reform: Why it's time for change

By Marie Woolf
Published May 10th 2005 in The Independent

The Government is facing calls for a wholesale review of the voting system after the general election was condemned as a "travesty of democracy". Politicians from all parties demanded that the first-past-the-post system be scrapped after Labour formed a Government with the smallest share of the vote for more than 100 years.

Constitutional specialists said Tony Blair was in charge of an "elected dictatorship" after Labour was able to win a majority with only 36 per cent of the vote. They say the Prime Minister is able to hold power with the support of just a fifth of the British adult population, the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

A national campaign for voting reform is to kick off this week with public meetings, a vigil outside Downing Street and a petition calling for the Government to look at introducing proportional representation systems similar to those in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Continent.

Although the Government privately admits the election result gave PR fresh momentum, the issue is likely to split the Cabinet, with electoral reformers such as Peter Hain and Ruth Kelly favouring a rethink and John Prescott and Ian McCartney sharply against. Many union leaders also fear it will lead to coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and prevent Labour from governing again with an absolute majority.

But electoral reformers said yesterday the present voting system was a "blunt instrument" that produced "bizarre" results. In Surrey, more than 148,000 votes were cast for the Liberal Democrats and 87,000 voted Labour, yet every seat was won by the Tories.

"This general election has become a travesty of democracy," said Nina Temple, director of Make Votes Count, which campaigns for electoral reform. "We have now got a Government with a working majority elected by just over one-third of voters. When turnout is taken into account, only 21 per cent of the electorate voted for the Government."

Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea, saw his 5,000 majority slashed to 163 after people voted tactically to protest at Tony Blair. "We have the most unsophisticated system in the world," he said. "By the simplest system of just 1, 2, 3 instead of X you could have a representative system."

The Tories gained 50,000 more votes than Labour in England but got 92 fewer English seats. The Liberal Democrats said if the number of votes cast reflected the number of seats in Parliament they would have more than doubled their number of seats from 62 to 141. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat peer, said the system means "one party can wield absolute power" without a clear majority of votes.

Campaign for Democracy

The election campaign has been notable for a persistent unease, widely expressed by voters of all parties, about British democracy. Areas of concern have included: marginalisation of Parliament, ballot fraud, voter alienation, the Prime Minister's presidential style, the erosion of civil liberties such as habeas corpus and jury trial, compulsory ID cards, the absence of a written constitution, and an electoral system that deprives millions of voters of a meaningful say in the composition of their government. Some would say our democracy is in crisis; few would dispute it is in urgent need of a health check. Over the coming weeks, The Independent will consider some of these issues. And we will particularly welcome input from you, our readers.