A strategy to revive an outdated democracy

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The Independent Online

The United Kingdom has just completed its periodic exercise in representational democracy. The result - the re-election of a Labour government with a severely depleted majority - was probably a reasonable reflection of the people's will. How far it was either representational or democratic is another matter.

The United Kingdom has just completed its periodic exercise in representational democracy. The result - the re-election of a Labour government with a severely depleted majority - was probably a reasonable reflection of the people's will. How far it was either representational or democratic is another matter.

Labour won its solid overall majority, even though the party took only 36 per cent of the vote. With only 3 per cent less of the vote than Labour, the Conservatives won 159 fewer seats. The Liberal Democrats fared proportionately even worse. Thanks to peculiarities of constituency boundaries, it took almost half as many votes again to elect a Tory MP as to elect one from Labour. And, despite boundary changes since the last election, Scotland and Wales were still able to elect proportionately more MPs than England.

In view of these and other anomalies of our first-past-the-post system, it is perhaps little wonder that the turnout has been falling. This year's was the second lowest in 60 years. A majority of MPs were in safe seats and, of these, many were elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote. As always, Conservatives were effectively disenfranchised in much of Scotland and northern England, and Labour supporters across whole swathes of the south. Smaller parties got nowhere.

Closer examination of the voting figures shows, however, that although turnout in safe seats often fell below 50 per cent, wherever the result was in doubt, people did exercise their right to vote. The clear implication is that British voters have not given up on democracy; they take part when they consider that it works.

Thoroughgoing reform of the electoral system needs to be embarked upon now, before faith in the system is lost entirely. It is more than a decade since the then Labour leadership commissioned a report on proportional representation and promised a national referendum on the conclusions, a pledge included in Labour's 1997 manifesto. Victory, of course, changed everything. The 1998 Jenkins report on proportional representation came - and went - and the referendum commitment was ditched.

Not that the intervening years have seen no electoral changes. There has been partial - though regrettably not complete - reform of the Lords. Legislative power has been successfully devolved to Scotland and Wales. London has acquired a directly elected assembly. The British have voted in direct European elections. And in each case, they have coped admirably with different systems of PR.

It is urgent that the discussion of a proportional representation system for British general elections be revived. Yes, PR has disadvantages. It has a habit of producing coalitions, rather than a single-party government, which risks political stagnation. It can weaken the accountability of MPs to individual constituencies - though this defect can, and should, be avoided.

But the pluses far outweigh the minuses. A modern system of PR allows many more votes to count than in our present system and makes the result a more accurate reflection of votes cast. It could give small parties, such as the Greens, a voice in Parliament and encourage minority parties - even those with distasteful views, such as the BNP - to function with the grain of the system rather than against it.

It is easy to understand why a governing party with a sound working majority has been less than enthusiastic about PR. But successive governments have got away with postponing reform for too long. Why is a system deemed good enough for regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and for electing Britain's MEPs not thought good enough for the country as a whole?

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