Electoral reform: Clamour for change grows

The case for ditching our first-past-the-post voting system is unanswerable, writes Richard Moore. But we need truly proportional representation, not the bogus alternative that Labour is offering.

The Conservatives are campaigning for "change" and "choice". The Labour Party's mantra is "a future fair for all". Both cling to an electoral system that restricts choice to a minimum and entrenches unfairness.

Since the flappers, as young women were dubbed in the 1920s, got the vote in 1928 and females became electors at the same age as males, there have been 20 general elections. In three of these, May 1929, October 1951 and February 1974, the party with the second largest number of votes perversely got more seats than the party with the largest number of votes. In three others, February 1950, October 1964 and October 1974, the parliamentary majority of the winner was in single figures. In 1931, a National government was elected, led by Ramsay MacDonald who, until two months before, had been Labour PM, but who, with several cabinet colleagues, formed an alliance with the Conservatives, Liberals and a number of the eminents who stood as independents. So, in more than a third of these 20 elections, and on all the evidence their number will increase on 6 May, the electoral system did not produce the decisive majority for a single party which is claimed to be its chief merit.

But is it in reality meritorious? A large majority encourages arrogance and complacency in the first half of a parliament ("we are the masters now", as a Labour MP cried out in 1945 having just won with a landslide on 49.7 per cent of the votes cast), and fear and trembling in the second. Then the swollen ranks of government supporters realise how many of them will lose their seats on quite a small loss of votes. The arrogance and complacency may be extended over two or more parliaments, as happened after the 1983 and 1987 and the 2001 elections, if the opposition is enfeebled by incompetence and division. But in the end, panic is likely to prevail, as can be seen from the hectic disorganisation of the Labour Party in the past few months. Hewitt and Hoon may have glimpsed opportunities for golden gain by leaving the Commons, but the fact that their failed putsch was the third in Gordon Brown's short, if overlong tenure of No 10 tells much about the fearful confusion in the Cabinet.

The Daily Telegraph has rightly lamented how little understanding there has been of rural Britain since 1997. Billy Elliot, in which Tynesiders chant their hatred of Margaret Thatcher, shows how the old industrial areas felt abandoned and unheard in the 1980s. Hardly surprising, since for decades there have been almost no Labour MPs for rural seats or Tory ones from the old industrial areas. Farmers and rural craftsmen, miners and steel mill workers had, in the old phrase, "no friends at court" at times of painful economic and social change.

The Conservative Party is a unionist party. Yet one consequence of a Conservative victory could easily be the separation of Scotland from the kingdom. In the House just dissolved, the Conservatives had one Scottish seat. They will do better than looks likely if they treble that score. A Tory government – any government, in fact – will have to impose drastic cuts on public expenditure. A third of Scottish workers are employed by the taxpayers. So if an overwhelmingly English government does its duty to save the economy, it is Alex Salmond who will be rubbing his hands. In Northern Ireland, the present system freezes the electorate behind the largest unionist and nationalist parties and so helps the champions of bigotry DUP and Sinn Fein.

In a way it is to be hoped that Labour will win most seats and come third this time. The offensive absurdity of the present system would then be obvious to all. Real reform, and not the bogus allure of the alternative vote, would be hard to resist.

The alternative vote would actually increase the overlarge majorities in years such as 1997, when the general mood of the country tilts heavily in one direction. Although majorities in 1935, 1945, 1959, 1966, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2005 gave domination to a single party, in none of these elections, except, marginally, that of 1935, has the dominant won a majority of the votes cast, let alone of the whole electorate. Such a distortion of democracy does not deserve reinforcement.

Happily, a far better system is available, the single transferable vote (STV). In this system each voter has as many votes as there are candidates in the constituency. He or she can plump for a single candidate, vote for all the candidates of their party or choose among them and among other parties. So a Conservative could choose between a Tory who has a sane attitude to the EU or one who foams at the mouth at the mention of the French. A Labour voter could back a candidate who supports a serious thinker about education, such as Barry Sheerman, rather than one who admires the brutalising, centralising policies of Ed Balls. Supporters of hunting could vote for brave Kate Hoey in the shires of south-west London and give their other votes to the local Tories or Liberals.

If the country was divided into 100 five-member constituencies, or 200 three-member ones, either of which would substantially reduce the size of the Commons, which the Conservative and Liberal Democrats want, and a substantial section of the electorate would be represented. The misrepresentation imposed by the present system, under which all Cornish seats are Liberal, all Surrey seats Conservative and all Tyne and Wear seats Labour, would be ended. But there would be no danger of undue influence from small bands of fanatics, as pertains under the list system in Israel and as did in the Weimar Republic.

All systems have their defects, but in STV they are minor. The count takes longer. The constituencies are larger, but with roughly 350,000 voters would still be smaller than for a single member seat in the House of Representatives in Washington or the Lok Sabha in Delhi. Competition within each party would increase and Irish experience suggests that this tends to favour members who press the flesh at funerals and cattle shows rather than those of the same party who are assiduous in the Dail. But this could be countered by insisting on attendance at debates and not just divisions in the Commons. If localism, another aim of the Conservatives, was promoted, MPs would have to deal with far less local detail and fewer personal problems, which should be the concern of councillors. Then MPs could concentrate more effectively on what Clement Attlee, the only Labour PM whose good reputation survives, insisted was the main duty of MPs, namely the scrutiny of legislation and of government

STV in Scottish local government has ended generations of incompetent, and sometimes corrupt, single-party domination. This is much needed in England too, as Doncaster demonstrates.

It is said that, while at present opposed to all forms of PR, David Cameron thinks STV is the best of the alternatives to the present system. He is an intelligent man and will probably soon be in the position when, recognising the obsolete duopoly has collapsed, he will have to accept that STV is necessary.

That would be real "change" and provide much "choice". The Labour Party in its deserved decline would at least be assured of "a future fair for all" rather than possible obliteration. The Liberal Democrats would belatedly rewarded.

Richard Moore joined the Liberal Party in 1951, and was adviser to the Liberals in the European Parliament from 1979 to 1996.

How to make your vote count

Here The Independent on Sunday presents the information you need to make sure your vote is most likely to be effective in the 100, or so, seats that will probably decide the outcome of this general election.

Under the first-past-the-post system, voters have to guess what other voters will do in order to have a realistic chance of influencing the result in their constituency. That is why many people engage in tactical voting – not choosing the candidate they really want, but opting for another one that is better placed to stop the candidate or party they like the least.

True to the independence of our masthead, we offer two guides. One identifies those seats in which people can vote tactically against the Conservative Party; the other is a list of seats for people who want to vote against the Labour Party. (Tactical voting against the Liberal Democrats is rare, because the party is seen as being in the centre between the other two and is often the second preference of Labour and Conservative voters alike.)

These lists are compiled on the assumption that the most likely outcomes of the election range from Labour being the largest single party in a hung parliament to the Conservatives being the largest party, or David Cameron gaining an overall majority. The opinion polls – the best way of guessing how our fellow citizens are likely to vote – suggest that a Labour majority (or the Lib Dems being the largest party or winning a majority) is not likely.

Therefore we assume that the main aim of anti-Conservative tactical voters will be to prevent Cameron winning a majority, while that of anti-Labour voters would be to prevent Gordon Brown emerging as the leader of the largest party. So, the main battleground (List 1) consists of the Labour-Conservative marginals that lie between these two outcomes. In all these seats tactical voters should vote either Labour or Tory against their main enemy, to try to push the swingometer away from the outcome they want to avoid.

There are also two secondary battlegrounds, where the Liberal Democrats or other minor parties pose a threat to Labour and the Conservatives. Anti-Tory voters in the seats in List 2 should vote for the Lib Dems (or the Green Party in Brighton Pavilion), who are best placed to beat a likely Tory winner. While anti-Labour voters in the seats in List 3 should vote for the Lib Dems (or the SNP in Ochil and South Perthshire), who are best placed to take a Labour-held seat.

Lists 2 and 3 reflect the average support for the Lib Dems and the SNP in the national opinion polls and another form of crowd-sourcing – the bookmakers – who, in Brighton, have Green Party leader Caroline Lucas as the frontrunner ahead of the Tory.

We have taken seats that are winnable with a swing of just one percentage point either way from that suggested by the polls. The Nick Clegg surge has taken some seats off the Lab-Con list because they are now winnable by the Lib Dems, and it has pushed the Lib Dem frontlines deeper into Labour and Tory territory.

If your constituency is not on any of these three lists, that's because the opinion polls suggest that it is a "safe seat" where the winning party should claim a comfortably victory.

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