Leading article: Safe seats blight our democracy

Wednesday 30 December 2009 01:00
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Writing in this newspaper today, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, accuses the Conservatives of planning to fight a US-style election in which money is the deciding factor. We are seeing, he says, "an attempt to buy the next general election". What he stopped short of saying was that if the Conservatives were indeed plotting to win by outspending Labour, the outlays would be most efficiently concentrated in the relatively few marginal constituencies.

Which highlights one of the greatest weaknesses of the present electoral system. It is in only about one in six constituencies where the individual voter's decision has much chance of influencing the outcome. There are far too many safe seats, where a big swing is needed if the incumbent party is to be dislodged. It is no wonder, in these circumstances, that the overall turn-out is so often disappointing – and appreciably lower than in much of continental Europe.

Voter apathy in Britain may have many causes – including this time around, no doubt, disenchantment with Parliament over MPs' expenses. But one reason is surely the feeling of many voters in safe seats that it will make no difference whether they go to the polling station or stay at home. The turn-out in marginal seats is routinely higher than elsewhere. Voters know a real contest when they see it.

The current arrangement, of course, suits both main parties, which each have their quota of safe seats. The Liberal Democrats and much smaller parties are the losers, with a parliamentary representation that nowhere near reflects their share of the popular vote. The disparity between the popular vote and a party's number of MPs also complicates national opinion polling.

By far the best remedy would be the introduction of a form of proportional representation. But the quality of democracy could also be enhanced under the present system by cutting the number of safe seats. David Cameron has advocated reducing the size of Parliament – which would necessarily entail new constituency boundaries. More genuine contests could diminish apathy, improve turn-out and make it harder for an election – in Mr Straw's words – to be "bought". What is there here not to like?

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