A real democracy needs a system of proportional representation

Published May 14th 2005 in The Independent
After just one week of this newspaper's "campaign for democracy", it has become clear that there exists a real desire in this country for substantial electoral reform. Not least because the results of the general election turned out to be a striking exposé of the deficiencies of our electoral system.

Labour won a modest 36 per cent of the popular vote, yet filtered through our first-past-the-post system, this gave Tony Blair a majority of 67 seats in the House of Commons. Although the Conservatives were just behind on 33 per cent of the vote, they ended up with 159 fewer seats than Labour. If the number of ballots cast for the Liberal Democrats had been truly reflected in that party's Commons representation, it would have more than doubled its number of seats. As for the smaller parties such as the Greens, their increased share of the vote counted for nothing and they returned no MPs to Westminster. In almost every way, our system distorted the democratic choice of this country's voters. This is what our campaign is about.

The response has been hugely encouraging. Hundreds of Independent readers have written in expressing support, and we printed a small selection of these letters on our front page on Wednesday. The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy - prompted by our efforts - has reiterated his party's commitment to electoral reform. We also revealed this week that 100 Labour MPs, including some cabinet ministers, desire change. We have learnt too that a motion calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the voting system is to be tabled in the Commons. The momentum for change is growing. By arguing, as he did on Thursday, that the present system works more or less adequately, Tony Blair has shown himself to be badly out of tune with the times.

And it should be noted that the lamentable failure of Mr Blair to complete his reform of the House of Lords is a bad sign. His appointment yesterday of 16 new loyal peers, an act that makes Labour the largest party in the upper chamber for the first time, suggests that the Prime Minister is more minded to work within the existing framework than to enact a reform of the wholly undemocratic upper chamber.

But allowing things to drift on as before would be a scandalous waste of an opportunity. It is time that some form of proportional representation was incorporated into our democracy, to make the constitution of the House of Commons bear a much greater resemblance to the way people actually vote. And the Lords must become a fully democratic revising chamber.

There are serious dangers if we do not grasp this opportunity. The turnout in the election was the second lowest in the past 60 years. This is a logical by-product of the fact that the majority of MPs are in safe seats. But in those constituencies where there was a proper contest, the turnout was significantly higher. The lesson of this is that unless people are made to feel that their vote really counts, the numbers taking part in our democratic process will continue to decline. It is also wrong in principle that the votes of those who happen to live in marginal constituencies are worth more than those who reside in safe seats. It all strengthens the case for a system of proportional representation.

We have a distinguished history of grasping the nettle of electoral reform in this country. Ever since the 1832 Reform Act, Britain has been getting rid of rotten boroughs, gradually extending the franchise, and making this into a more truly democratic nation. Why should we baulk at taking the next logical step?