Voting reform and others

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The Independent Online

How frustration over wasted votes gave a boost to the BNP

How frustration over wasted votes gave a boost to the BNP

Sir: I would like to offer your readers my experience of standing as an independent candidate in Barking in east London at the recent general election.

Because we were campaigning in a safe Labour seat you would never have known that a general election was taking place. None of the mainstream parties were actively out on the streets of Barking campaigning. The ruling Labour party restricted itself to campaigning on Saturday mornings for a couple of hours. However at least they showed up, which is more then can be said of other mainstream parties. The only party that was out campaigning day in and day out in Barking was the BNP, and of course my own team. I think that the experience in Barking is not too dissimilar to that experienced by the other constituencies that were deemed "safe" seats.

The lack of effort made by the mainstream political parties was in turn reflected by the lack of interest in the election shown by the local people. "What is the point of voting?" they would say. "Because Labour always gets in." Even though people on the streets expressed deep-seated hostility towards the local Labour party they felt powerless in our electoral system to do anything. They felt that the only option to show their displeasure was to vote for the BNP.

And many residents in Barking did just that. On 5 May the people of Barking gave the BNP its most successful general election result in London. A significant number of Barking residents must have deduced that in an electoral system such as ours, if you going to "waste your vote" then you can show your frustration by wasting it on the BNP.

Surely things must get better.



A rotten borough in dire need of reform

Sir: I live in what was a rotten borough until the 1832 Reform Act. It now feels as if the whole country has become a rotten borough. We can have no hope for reform from the current incumbent in No 10, who seems to be dispensing patronage like an 18th-century grandee.

Mr Blair's reshuffle and his performance in front of the Parliamentary Labour Party show that he has learnt nothing, despite his claims in the aftermath of the election that he would listen. His departure seems tarnished in advance, and is in danger of overshadowing his achievements. Blair's credibility is now so low that it would be a matter of serious concern for the movement in favour of electoral reform if he were to endorse it.

Those who want reform have to be in it for the long haul. We need to have a serious debate about which alternative should replace the existing discredited model, as there are many.

Opponents of reform often conflate the worst aspects of alternative voting systems. It is perfectly possible to have a proportional system that avoids giving undue influence to minority parties or being unstable, and that is fairer and more representative than our current system. The Irish and the Australian systems both seem to work pretty well, and the latter is bolstered by compulsory voting and a fully elected upper house. It would be a marvellous outcome to the campaign launched by The Independent if either of those systems, preferably the latter, were in place, if not by the next election then by the one after.



Sir: The Independent is to be applauded for recognising that electoral reform is the single most important domestic issue in British politics today. Every policy, every piece of legislation and the entire of style of Parliament is dictated by how a government is elected. Britain's first-past-the-post system has been entirely discredited and the Labour Government's legitimacy hangs by a thread. Under the present system it is tyranny by a minority.

As fewer and fewer under-30s bother to vote it is now vital that proportional representation in the form of the single transferable vote is adopted before the next election. Otherwise an entire generation will feel disenfranchised and never return to the ballot box.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest first-past-the-post voting as an example of democracy for a new country.



Sir: The chief reasons for Juliet Samuel's dislike of proportional representation (letter, 12 May) are precisely those that commend it.

Like many other people in this country, she seems to think that the inability of any one party to win an absolute majority would be a disadvantage. "In order to get any legislation through, parties have to make deals with one another," she states. Precisely; and a little more co-operation and consensus would be welcome, in place of the "yah-boo" confrontational politics which have bedevilled our so-called democracy for as long as I can remember.

Apart from once every four or five years, in a general election, the electorate is powerless to bring about any change in politics. A government with a large majority can do precisely what it likes, firm in the knowledge that the rebels in its own ranks will hold back from putting their own futures as MPs at risk by bringing the Government down. This is not democracy: it is dictatorship by one party. We all know where dictatorship leads: to extra-parliamentary resistance. Is that what Juliet Samuel really wants?



The election result that we wanted

Sir: Your correspondents and headline writers are quite wrong. The result of the election is exactly what a majority of the electorate, including those who did not vote, desired. It was achieved by a collective action, using the system with which people are familiar, with the exception that more postal voting was available to encourage a wider participation.

Non-votes were important, signifying that while a reduction in Labour's majority was desired, the Conservatives were not wanted yet and the Liberal Democrats picked up only a realistic vote given the obvious flaws in their policies. The result is absolutely correct and legitimate.

I have in the past favoured proportional representation of some sort. Now I see that I was wrong.



PR favours the party machines

Sir: Can we ever have true democracy when the parties have narrow control of our representation? We have no primary elections. The parties choose our potential representatives. Our only democratic right is, once in five years, to choose between two or three bags of very mixed policies.

PR makes things worse. Our one force that makes for democracy - that all parties' policies must target the floating voter in marginal constituencies - vanishes with PR. Indeed, in the STV multi-member system, nobody bothers about the floating vote. The only target is the first preference of the party's faithful.

PR strengthens party, weakens government and favours extremists. Most PR systems risk either unstable coalitions or a power balance in extremist hands. Or indeed both: in inter-war Europe's coalitions, socially-conscious moderates bargained policies with violent revolutionaries: the worst of them precipitated the Spanish Civil War.

No wonder the Athenian democracy went to such lengths to make sure no party could ever form. One safeguard for democracy might be a party-independent House of Lords, picked by some random system. Heredity, say.



French system gives power to the voters

Sir: To say that Parliament should represent the views of the nation is far too consumerist an approach to the business of government and reduces Parliament to a talking shop. What matters is that in Parliament the power of decision should be exercised by representatives of the majority of the electorate.

The gravest defect of the present system is that for many years the ever-increasing powers of government have been exercised by representatives of an, apparently, ever-smaller minority. The great merit of the second-ballot system used in France and commended by Frank Field (13 May), is that it ensures that those who have the majority in Parliament have the support of the majority of the voters in the country.

All politics involves compromise. With proportional representation voters leave it to the parties they have voted for to work out compromises among themselves (which may be an unedifying process). With the second ballot the compromises are made by the voters themselves: seeing that the strength of opinion among their fellow-voters has excluded all but two of the candidates, they - not some party committee - decide who is to represent them and who is to have the majority.

The second ballot, which also maintains intact the direct relationship between the MP and his or her constituency, is the only truly democratic version of electoral reform, and the need for it is urgent.



Beware of a Labour campaign for AV

Sir: The sudden interest among Labour backbenchers in electoral reform, while welcome, must not be allowed to become a campaign for Alternative Vote.

This system of election (assuming there are no other parallel reforms, such as the introduction of top-up seats) is an utter swindle, and would have the effect of creating single-party government. Its popularity among Labour MPs is precisely because they know that in Labour marginals they would naturally pick up many second preferences from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Tactical voting would therefore continue to exist, but would be manipulated by AV to become an anti-Tory vote favouring Labour candidates. The result would be permanent Labour parliamentary majorities.

If we are to have reform it must be based on some system of proportionality, either through direct proportionality, top-up seats or larger county-based constituencies using the transferable vote.




Sir: Your readers who state that PR is unworkable because a party does not get a chance to implement its manifesto miss the salient point, namely that PR changes the game. In countries where PR operates, voters and journalists are aware that there will be post-election horse-trading so the parties are clearly asked prior to the vote what their priorities and bargaining positions will be, and if they do not deliver, it is the same as a breach of a manifesto promise under first-past-the-post.



Recipe for corruption

Sir: I live in Italy, which had a pure PR system for many years but is moving towards the first-past-the-post system, in order to have a workable government. The result of PR is that there is a permanently hung government. This allows the centre parties to remain in power perpetually, now in an alliance with the right, now with the left. Thus they get arrogant; thus they become corrupt. Please think again before trying to persuade the disgruntled.



Blair's promise

Sir: Thank you for your front page deconstruction of Tony Blair's comments on electoral reform (13 May). On 19 January 1996, he wrote to me that "this question should be decided by the voters", and his 1997 manifesto gave a specific promise of a referendum. If he wishes to re-establish his credibility, he should honour his promise.



Schools scandal

Sir: The proposal that elite independent schools should take in disruptive pupils is an extraordinary one (report, 13 May). Anyone would think that these thrusting business enterprises had charitable status!



United in hypocrisy

Sir: With the complaints about the likely takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer we have a clear example of people that want to have their cake and eat it. They appear to want all the financial advantages of being quoted on the Stock Exchange, but not be prepared for legitimate ownership takeovers. This is incredibly hypocritical.



Sir: Why worry about Malcolm Glazer taking over Man U when, by re-electing Tony Blair, we have allowed George W Bush to take over the UK?



New mothers

Sir: Your report about breastfeeding (9 May) failed to mention that one factor which must contribute to the low rate of breastfeeding is that young mothers are sent home from hospital before breastfeeding has been established.

Many first-time mothers would admit that breastfeeding does not happen easily. Those of us who had babies in the Seventies were allowed a week in hospital and had the support of the nursing staff to establish breastfeeding. My daughter, who has just had a baby in Switzerland, had five days in hospital, and received a great deal of support. How different it is here, where mothers are urged to breastfeed, but sent home before it is established.



Vatican's hard line

Sir, John Phillips ("Pope pledges to uphold hard line on abortion", 9 May) is right to say that Vatican "references to the defence of life 'from conception to natural death' refer to the Holy See's bans on abortion, artificial contraception and euthansia". The list does not stop there, however. As George Bush is only too aware, the Vatican also condemns capital punishment and pre-emptive military strikes on countries suspected of possessing WMDs.



Life imitates art

Sir: I am struck by the way Tony Blair more and more looks like the caricature Dave Brown devised for him years ago. Bravo, Mr Brown! Shame on you, Mr Blair, for becoming a caricature of yourself!