Undemocratic voting systems, Proportional representation and others


The system that puts power in the hands of people, not parties

The system that puts power in the hands of people, not parties

Sir: Thank you for your excellent editorial on Britain's unfair, undemocratic and inefficient voting system ("A strategy to revive an outdated democracy", 10 May).

Voters do not get the government for which they vote and most individually do not get the representatives for whom they vote. They also have no choice between, say, pro- and anti- Europe Conservatives or pro- and anti-Iraq war Labour candidates. In some places, they can vote Lib Dem and get Conservative, as Mr Blair said. In other places, they can vote Labour and get Conservative, as Mr Blair did not say.

Almost any other voting system would be fairer than the present one for political parties, but most would increase the power of the party machines. Only the single transferable vote would be fair to voters, give them more choice and decrease the power of party machines.

Most politicians do not want change because they have a vested interest in the present system but, if war is too important to be left to generals, voting systems are too important to be left to politicians. British Columbia solved this problem last year by appointing a citizens' assembly to review voting systems. Its members were chosen at random rather like a jury and, after hearing and discussing evidence, they recommended the single transferable vote. However, the voters will have the final say in a binding referendum on 17 May. Let UK voters decide as well!



Sir: While no system is perfect, the single transferable vote (STV) in multimember constituencies gives voters the greatest choice, so that they and not parties in effect select who represents them, from a shortlist which can be overturned: if a particular candidate is unpopular, people can still vote for another candidate from that party.

Furthermore, STV minimises the chances of extremists getting elected, let alone seizing power: judging by elections in the Irish Republic. Votes are not transferred to Sinn Fein, and so they get roughly half the seats in Dáil Eireann that they would expect from their first preferences under any form of list system.



PR horse-trading thwarts voters' will

Sir: Your front page article promoting proportional representation (10 May) fails to acknowledge its failings. PR leads to an even greater distortion of the electorate's will than the current system.

Under PR, it is nearly unheard of for any party to win an absolute majority. In order to get any legislation through, parties have to make deals with one another. This either involves scrapping important reforms or amending them out of recognition: for instance, the Liberal Democrats might support ID cards in return for abolishing tuition fees.

This takes the real decision-making even farther from the electorate, since important concessions are made by unelected political advisers, until finally a bill's spine is removed and it is deemed harmless enough to go through. Manifesto promises become a joke, because they will have to go through weeks of horse-trading before ever passing into law. Smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats gain disproportionate power, since they can make a pact to vote for whichever party gives them the most concessions. This would also happen on a lesser scale with the Green Party, UKIP and, more ominously, the BNP.

In addition, PR breaks the strong constituency-MP link. Voters elect MPs from lists drawn up by blank-faced party bureaucrats, making it impossible to hold individual MPs to account: Blaenau Gwent could never have punished Labour in favour of Peter Law under PR. This makes the government as a whole less accountable.



Sir: If we were to have proportional representation, then the make up of the government would more accurately represent the number of votes cast.

However, it would not just bring the present parties into power. We would need to be ready for a big change in the process of forming a government. At present, politicians come together to form parties which are in effect coalitions put together before the election because they know it is the only way to get into power.

With PR, coalitions would be put together after elections. The present major parties may well split up and a potential coalition may involve left-wing Labour with Lib Dems and Greens. However, it may just as well be right-wing Conservatives with UKIP and BNP. Smaller parties would spring up and may be needed to form a government. They may be fair and reasonable or bigoted and extreme: a "Capital Punishment" party must be a possibility.

At least at present we vote for a party which has a manifesto that will be implemented if it reaches government. With PR we would have to wait until after a coalition was formed before we knew what the policies would be.



Tories need to look at case for reform

Sir: I am delighted to see you have highlighted the need for electoral reform. Our electoral system is weighted against the voter as votes are more valuable in marginal constituencies. It also fails to produce a stable correlation between votes and seats.

The Conservatives introduced STV in Northern Ireland and it will be used in the local government elections in Scotland. We already have PR in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. So why should elections to Westminster be left with an unjust system? The urgent need for reform was demonstrated with Labour winning a majority of seats which such a small percentage of the vote.

All parties need to recognise the strong case for reform. The Conservatives traditionally against reform in Westminster should realise that it is in their interest to change the system which has an inherent bias against them.



Lessons from New Zealand

Sir: From the time I joined the British army in 1960 until I emigrated from Britain to New Zealand in 1985, I voted Liberal in every general election. Never did the candidate I gave my vote to get into Parliament nor was my vote of any influence in the formation of the nation's government. In effect I was totally disenfranchised.

Shortly after my arrival in New Zealand the politicians here had the courage to move from the blatantly unjust first-past-the-post system to an MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) system in which we have two votes, one for an individual and one for a party. If the individual you vote for doesn't get in at least your party vote counts towards the numbers of MPs that party has in Parliament. Ever since, I have been able to feel that I have a stake in the running of my country.



Sir: Do not rush to proportional representation. While it increases proportionality it decreases the quality of the representation.

While it might feel nice to see your share of the vote represented in parliament, the coalition politics that result from proportional representation mean that it is even harder to hold politicians to their promises. Come election time they blame their broken promises on necessary compromises with their coalition partners. Who's to know?

The defining feature of British politics in recent years has been that the party that best captures the centre forms the government. This is as it should be (someone should tell the Tories). The majority of the country can live with their party losing the election if the lot that win more or less represent the centre. Very few people want either the far left of Labour or the Tories' Eurosceptic loonies getting into power.

When proportional representation is introduced the major parties tend to fragment. You then have the very real possibility of a Ken Livingston, George Galloway or Robert Kilroy-Silk holding the balance of power.

For example, in New Zealand there has been underinvestment in power infrastructure and roading by recent Labour governments as they seek to deal with the conservation agenda of the Greens.



Sir: Be wary of those politicians that seek change and promise referendums for people to determine whether the change has been successful. The referendums do not eventuate!



Don't lose this chance for change

Sir: I write as yet one more supporter of your campaign. After every election that I can remember there have been letters to the press on the subject of democracy, but usually the discussion fades away after a week or two, until the next time.

For obvious reasons the Liberal Party, forerunner of the Lib Dems, used always to focus on the issue of proportional representation. Other politicians have occasionally paid lipservice to the idea, but never more than that. The unworthy thought often occurred that once in power MPs became more concerned with keeping their jobs than with real democracy.

This time, however, it seems that individuals from every party and none are concerned enough to take some action. As you rightly suggest, the time to begin is now, as large ships and dinosaurs can only turn slowly. We have got about three years before we are made aware of when the next election is likely to be. We must not allow momentum to be lost.



New role for the House of Lords

Sir: There are two grossly undemocratic elements within our electoral system, needing reform; not simply the under representation of smaller parties at Westminster, but also the nature of the House of Lords.

A straightforward solution would be to keep the first-past-the-post system for the Commons, producing "strong" majority governments, but counter these by a totally proportional second chamber, with a role limited to amending, delaying and, in extremis, blocking legislation proposed by the Commons.

Granted, this might have the disadvantage of producing governments whose role was limited to "management" and whose legislative programme was paralysed by the reformed second chamber. Some, like myself, might see this as a benefit.



Take warning from the United States

Sir: I have followed closely the British election and commiserate with those who call it a "travesty of democracy". You can imagine how we in the US feel: not only do we not have proportional representation but we now entrust the very counting of the vote to two computer companies openly aligned with one of the parties!

As you work toward electoral reform, and I do wish you the best, may you never fall victim to the coup of computerised voting with no voter-verified paper trail. We lost our republic in 2000 and I see no sign of it returning.



All votes must be equal

Sir: In a democracy everyone has a vote, and all votes are equal. And that is all I ask. However, I live in the Croydon South constituency, where the Tory candidate regularly gets 50 per cent or more of the vote. My vote counts for absolutely nothing, which might explain why I saw no canvassers at all before the election. I don't expect to have a big voice among the roughly 25 million people who voted, but I do expect a voice that counts a 25 millionth towards the result.



Invisible UKIP

Sir: In another splendid example of subliminal media block against the Eurosceptic parties, your front page ideogram (10 May) showing the numbers of party representatives that would have been proportionally elected, fails to distinguish the fourth largest political party in the kingdom. Whilst you rightly highlight that the Green Party would have gained seven seats, you have failed to distinguish from the grey "others" the much larger representation of at least 16 seats that would have been gained by the UK Independence Party.



Fate of Germany

Sir: Yes, the current electoral system is unfair, especially to the Liberal Democrats. But most known forms of PR go too far the other way, giving the balance of power to the smaller parties. In Germany the third party, the Liberals (FDP), brought down Helmut Schmidt's government in 1982 by switching sides, and Helmut Kohl became Chancellor without the need for a general election. That's not particularly representational or democratic either. As a result, Hans-Dietrich Genscher became the longest-serving Foreign Minister in the world (18 years).



Advance of democracy

Sir: Given that women were denied full suffrage until 1928, can it be correct to say that the Prime Minister is able to hold power "with the support of just a fifth of the British adult population, the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832" ("Time for a change", 10 May)? Whilst I share your unease regarding the present democratic process, it certainly seems over-dramatic to be stating that this election result is less democratic than that of an era when half the population was denied the vote.



Boycott the polls

Sir: As you say, the newly elected Labour government has no political incentive to promote proportional representation. Perhaps a massive media campaign to persuade people not to vote at all (maybe at the next local government elections) would work? A politician who won by a few hundred votes with a turnout of 15 per cent might just feel a bit ridiculous.



Intellectual challenges

Sir: Three Sudokus a day and a campaign for electoral reform. Now you are really spoiling me!



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