Bishops back change in voting system

Tuesday 01 February 2011 16:32 GMT

Ten Church of England bishops are backing a change in the first-past-the-post voting system for "ethical and moral" reasons, campaigners said today.

The Rt Rev Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, said they will support changing the system for electing MPs to the House of Commons from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote (AV) in a planned referendum on May 5.

They are joined by the Rt Rev Martyn Jarrett, Bishop of Beverley, the Rt Rev Nigel Stock, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham and the Rt Rev Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester.

The Rt Rev Colin Buchanan, former Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Rev Peter Dawes, former Bishop of Derby and the Rt Rev David Atkinson, former Bishop of Thetford are also listed as backing a "yes" vote for AV in the referendum.

Bishop Langrish said: "Voting systems are not value free. I am supporting a change on the grounds of justice and accountability.

"AV will increase the likelihood that the general preference of a majority rather than a plurality will shape the choice of MPs, and so Parliament.

"It will also increase the accountability of MPs, particularly in 'safe seats' who will have to have a greater regard for electors, not of their own party."

Bishop Wilson said: "As the power of party whips and managers has grown, it has become plainer that they are really the only people first-past-the-post really serves.

"It enables them to switch off in most constituencies and concentrate all their efforts on a minority.

"As boundaries are drawn and redrawn, all kinds of inter-party horse-trading places the lines. The system provides a nicely contoured career path for professional politicians.

"AV marks considerable progress from where we are now, as an evolutionary step that is entirely consistent with our traditions, and workable. Now is the time to move on."

A deal between Tory and Labour peers was struck in the House of Lords yesterday over legislation introducing the referendum following protracted debate.

Labour peers have opposed measures contained in the same legislation to reduce the House of Commons from 650 to 600 MPs - which the party claims are designed to disadvantage it.

The AV system would mean voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference.

Jonathan Bartley, a spokesman for the Yes campaign for the AV system, said the bishops were backing change on moral and ethical grounds.

Under AV, MPs would have to win the support of a majority of voters rather than just around one in three, as is currently the case in two thirds of constituencies, he said.

"The bishops are frustrated that there is very little in the way of the moral, ethical dimension to this. The debate has been constructed so far in terms of which party will benefit and who is trying to gain an advantage out of this," he said.

"What the bishops are saying is that there are more important issues."

Jane Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the No to AV campaign said: "I welcome the bishops' intervention in the debate, but I am concerned at the implication that it is in some way immoral to be opposed to a change to the deeply flawed AV system.

"This referendum requires a sober, sensible analysis of the case for and against scrapping our current electoral system.

"There are people of all faiths and none who are deeply unhappy about the proposal. The Yes campaign should not attempt to turn this debate into a moral crusade."

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