Vernon Bogdanor: 'Our electoral system failed to register all significant minorities'

From a speech by the Professor of Law at Gresham College, in the City of London
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The most obvious feature of the recent general election is that the Labour Party was returned to office with a comfortable working majority of 66 seats on just 35.2 per cent of the vote. This means that nearly 65 per cent of those who voted - nearly two thirds of the voters - were against it. We thus have, under our constitution, a government with very considerable, if not untrammelled power, yet opposed by nearly two-thirds of the voters.

The most obvious feature of the recent general election is that the Labour Party was returned to office with a comfortable working majority of 66 seats on just 35.2 per cent of the vote. This means that nearly 65 per cent of those who voted - nearly two thirds of the voters - were against it. We thus have, under our constitution, a government with very considerable, if not untrammelled power, yet opposed by nearly two-thirds of the voters.

Many definitions of democracy equate it with majority rule. But do we have majority rule in Britain when the Government is supported by just over 35 per cent of the voters?

In the 2005 general election, the electoral system failed to yield a government representing the majority and failed to ensure that all significant minorities were represented. Instead, it secured a government representing the largest minority; and it represented some minorities better than others - minorities voting for parties whose support was concentrated, but not minorities voting for nationwide parties such as UKIP or the Greens.

The electoral system particularly misrepresented the state of Unionist opinion in Northern Ireland, making Rev Ian Paisley's DUP appear stronger than it is and David Trimble's UUP weaker. This could have important political consequences.

The electoral system also has the effect of under-representing major parties in areas where they are second - the Conservatives in the inner cities and Labour in rural areas - and this could have important political consequences. It is possible also that the electoral system bears part of the blame for the low level of turnout.

The Achilles heel of our electoral system is that, under it, the number of seats that a party gains depends not only upon the number of votes that it receives, but also upon how those votes are geographically structured.

A party whose vote is geographically concentrated will win a greater number of seats than a party with the same vote whose vote is geographically more evenly spread. Our electoral system makes the number of seats depend not only upon the number of votes, but also upon geography.

Comments