The melting mandate

The general election produced a number of unenviable "firsts". Most telling of all is that Labour achieved a majority in the House of Commons with the smallest ever percentage vote in the country. It is laughable for Blair loyalists to castigate Blair critics on the grounds that the party was elected on a mandate to implement the Labour manifesto. What mandate? Barely one elector in five voted Labour on 5th May.

The danger inherent in the present situation is also shown in the division of Britain into two unequal parts - the vast majority of constituencies which are "safe" for one party or another, and the much smaller number which are marginal. Increasingly, pretty well all electoral campaigning is concentrated in the latter and the former are cynically abandoned to their fate. In addition, in twenty-seven constituencies, UKIP and Veritas candidates polled more votes than the Labour or Liberal Democrat majority and arguably cost the Conservatives a significant number of these seats

Politicians will be tempted to look for a simplistic answer that doesn't endanger their hegemony, and proportional representation is once again on the agenda. However, no measure of electoral reform can be the magic solution to Britain's political malaise but it is required as a key component in the recovery plan for British democracy. The issue of fairness to one or other party is far less important, even though mathematically valid. A majority in the House of Commons does not of itself enable a government to force compliance with legislation that lacks the support of a substantial majority of the population. Mrs Thatcher discovered this painful truth over the poll tax and Tony Blair will discover it over identity cards.

Political problems require political solutions, and minor palliatives aimed at an illusory increase in electoral turnout are not answers in themselves. The arrogance of the government in ignoring all evidence as to the insecurity of postal voting is but the latest tactic in the ongoing manipulation of the processes of government in the interests of partisan gain. When 40% of the electorate believes that it isn't even worth turning out to vote for its parliamentary representatives, the warning bells for the democratic ill health of the country will not be drowned out by the parrotting of the trite traditional slogans of governments and oppositions as if we were still in the 1950s when the winning party regularly secured the votes of around double the percentage of the total electorate than can be persuaded to support it today.

The choice of an electoral system is much more of a political issue than one of mathematical certainty. As such it requires a modicum of intellectual commitment to think through the issues involved and to determine political imperatives. The trend of recent years towards increasing the power of the central party machine over policy making and diminishing the rights of constituency parties to select candidates, runs in the opposite direction to public feeling. The need for more open debate and for the recruitment of more independent thinkers is not going to be encouraged by tighter central party control. It is a curious paradox that, over the years, the party machines have gained more influence in proportion to the decline in party membership. Apart from George Galloway's success in Bethnal Green - with his candidature there provoked by the Labour party's manipulation of its rule book to prevent him re-standing in Glasgow - the victory in Blaenau Gwent of Peter Law, a dissident Labour Welsh Assembly Member standing as an independent protesting at the imposition of an all woman shortlist on the local party, suggests that local feeling against party machines can be catalysed by capable and viable independent candidates.

Logically, this antipathy to the domination of the party "machine" rules out electoral reform based on party lists, in which the chances of success of an individual candidate depend on the party allocated position on the list rather than on popularity with the electorate. To move in that direction would make the situation worse and further alienate the public.

So, if "first past the post" (FPTP) is seriously flawed through its inability to produce a result broadly representative of the electorate's wishes and through its failure to energise participation in the political process, and if list systems remove political power even further away from public influence, what is left? Certainly not the Alternative Vote, under which, if no candidate has an overall majority, the second preferences of all but the top two candidates are redistributed to produce an artificial majority for one or other of them. Not only does AV produce an even less proportional result than FPTP, but, by forcing voters to support a candidate from a party different to their personal political preference, it risks alienating them even further.

The best opportunity for seventy years to change the electoral system for House of Commons elections was botched in 1998 by the Independent Commission on Electoral Reform, when its chairman, Roy Jenkins, against the advice of most reformers, chose to invent his own system of proportional representation, thus giving opponents the opportunity to set the Commission's report aside on the excuse of requiring time to study the novel proposals in detail.

Jenkins believed that he had to try and find a way of squaring the circle of proportionality matched with constituency representation. Frankly, this is a chimera and unnecessary when the third "family" of electoral systems, preferential voting, or the single transferable vote (STV), under which the voter creates his or her own list by placing the candidates in order of individual preference, is an increasingly attractive option. It enables a high level of proportionality, not only as between parties but also of trends within parties. It also reproduces the electorate's wishes for gender proportionality and for ethnic representation. Above all, given the current political malaise, it both encourages the positive assessment of political philosophies other than one's own in order to attract lower preferences and puts more influence into the hands of electors. Electors vote for individual candidates but in multi-member constituencies which do away with safe seats and, by providing the possibility of mixed party representation, give the opportunity of greater accountability of the MP to his or her constituents.

The available evidence is that the public likes STV. In Ireland, two referenda have gone in favour of retaining it against the wishes of the political parties. In Scotland, a long consultative process has opted for STV for the forthcoming local elections. In New Zealand a number of local authorities have opted for STV for their elections. Perhaps most interesting of all, in British Columbia a "Citizens' Commission" of 160 members, appointed randomly from the voters' lists, spent twelve months studying electoral systems for provincial elections. It recommended STV and this will be put to a referendum later this month.

Unlike list systems, STV does not force the de-selection of sitting MPs but enables them to secure re-election on the basis of their political and personal appeal. Which MP would dare suggest that his or her chances of victory would be harmed by the opportunity to secure a higher personal vote? The adoption of STV would be a spur to a new and urgently needed political settlement. No other electoral system has this key beneficial effect.

May 2005