Pam Giddy: At least one party gets the urgency of political reform

Safe seats are as shameful as the rotten boroughs of the 18th century
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The Independent Online

Is your doormat being flooded with expensive glossy literature full of smiling candidates on a near-daily basis? Are the parties beating a path to your door desperate to talk to you? If the answer's "yes", there's a good chance you inhabit one of the handful of marginal constituencies that will decide the election. If, as is more likely, the answer's "no", that puts you among the 44 million or so people effectively disenfranchised by our current voting system.

Watching the smoothly polished manifesto presentations this week, it's easy to be fooled into thinking the parties are courting all our votes equally. In reality, their policies are carefully crafted to appeal to swing voters while their resources are ruthlessly targeted at marginal seats.

For months the Conservative Party has been ploughing Lord Ashcroft's money into wooing a few thousand voters in the 30 or 40 seats that will be critical to winning them a majority. Despite the fact they need 116 seats to form the next government, they are concentrating their campaigning efforts on just one in 500 voters across the country. The Labour and Liberal Democrat approach is no different, of course, although they have fewer resources.

This wasn't so objectionable when society was dominated by two homogenous social blocks and Labour and Tories regularly polled over 90 per cent of the vote. But today we live in a plural, multi-party democracy where at the most recent nationwide elections, to the European Parliament, well over half of votes went to parties other than Labour and the Tories.

All the signs are that the public is deeply disenchanted with politics and hungry for fresh voices and thinking in Parliament, but we remain a country kettled by an unfair voting system and the bosses of the two main parties. When Power2010 ran the largest-ever consultation on the future of British democracy in response to the catastrophic loss of trust that followed the expenses crisis, proportional representation (PR), which would tie the number of seats a party has to the number of votes it receives, topped the list of reforms the public wants to see.

Achieving this will be tough, as there are so many vested interests at stake. The classic justification for the refusal of a fairer voting system can be found in the Conservative Party manifesto, which informs us that first-past-the-post "gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with". Ironically, this came out on the same day polls showed the Tory lead slipping to within three points of Labour, a figure which, if repeated across the country at the general election, would leave Labour the largest single party in the Commons despite the Tories polling more votes (the inverse of what happened in 1951 when Winston Churchill went on to form the government despite polling one million less votes than Labour). So the voting system doesn't even work on the one simple criterion set for it by the Tories.

Labour, meanwhile, has included a commitment to a referendum on the voting system in its manifesto following a deathbed conversion to electoral reform. But this is not all that it seems. While parading the referendum as an example of the "new politics" on offer from Labour, Gordon Brown would deny the public the chance to vote for proportional representation and restrict the choice to the Alternative Vote, a system hand-picked by ministers which allows voters to rank candidates but would do nothing to end the unfairness in the current system.

This is no way to rebuild trust, and given that Labour promised referendums on PR in 1997 and 2001 and didn't deliver, this new watered-down promise should be treated with caution.

The public must instead be given the chance to deliberate and decide on moving to a fairer voting system, and this has to include the different systems of proportional representation. Liberal Democrats deserve credit and recognition here for their historic commitment to reform. In their manifesto, the party sets out its commitment to the Single Transferable Vote, a system which would offer real choice, allowing voters to choose between candidates as well as parties, and end the shameful institution of safe seats, which are no better than the rotten boroughs of the 18th century. Their commitment, often dismissed as simply self-serving, is right for British democracy and wanted by the British people.

Too often supporters of electoral reform are dismissed as geeks and anoraks and told their concerns are irrelevant to "ordinary" voters who only care about "bread and butter" issues. We should ignore this propaganda, which really is self-serving. The public are angry and want change. Voting reform is the key to unlocking a closed political system and the best weapon to challenge an insular and detached political class. Isn't it time we embraced it?

Pam Giddy is director of democratic reform campaign