Time for equal votes

I wrote my column for the Irish World last week on proportional representation. It seems even more relevant now that Labour has won an overall majority on just 36 per cent of the vote. I’m posting it here as it’s not available on the Irish World website.

All votes are equal, but some are more equal than others

The polls suggest that Thursday night’s election result will be pretty clearcut, but there are two key factors which could throw the predictions off kilter.

One is turnout. Traditionally, Tory supporters are much more likely to actually cast their ballot than Labour ones. Michael Howard will be hoping that the opinion polls keep complacent Labour supporters at home. That’s why it is not Howard but Tony Blair who is talking up Tory prospects.

The other key issue is how the parties perform in the crucial marginal constituencies. Each party can pile up thousands of votes in its own stronghold without altering the overall outcome, but a small number of votes in the right place can be decisive.

Blair acknowledged as much on Monday. “There are constituencies where a few thousand or a few hundred votes could swing it either way,” he said. “The pundits and the pollsters seem to think this is a foregone conclusion. It is not.”

The main parties have concentrated their attention on those key marginals, to a greater extent than ever before. The Tories began the campaign with an anti-immigrant, anti-Traveller message crafted to appeal in those seats, almost regardless of how it went down elsewhere.

The skew in favour of voters in these seats, is perhaps a demonstration of the limits of Britain’s first past the post electoral system.

That system was controversial in the 1980s and early 1990s, because the Tories were able to dominate Parliament on a minority of the total vote. That changed in 1997 and 2001, as Labour and the Lib Dems drew closer together, and their supporters learnt to vote tactically for the candidate that could beat the Conservatives.

How far that tactical voting holds up in this election may prove very significant. It is clearly not such a satisfactory solution, now that Labour and the Lib Dems are split on the issue of Iraq. The dilemma of whether to vote for your first choice or a better placed alternative has become much more acute.

That may lead to renewed demands for proportional representation. In Northern Ireland, some pundits are already lamenting the fact that John Hume did not manage to get the British Government to concede PR for Westminster elections there.

He failure was unsurprising, since it would have created a precedent that threatened the hegemony of the two big parties in Britain.

First the past may well speed the development of a similar hegemony in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the DUP are both now campaigning on the basis that they are the only two real choices.

In Britain, first past the post worked best when Labour and Tory were similarly polarised around class. Today, it is increasingly inadequate. Much of what passes for apathy may reflect the inability of the system to handle the more sophisticated message that voters want to send.

Whatever you think of Irish politics, the Irish Single Transferable Vote system offers a solution to this problem. While counts under STV are complicated, voting is not. You simply rank candidates in order of preference, so you can vote for your first choice without letting in your worst choice.

STV also has the advantage that it works best with multiple seats in each constituency. The opportunity to choose between running mates gives the voter some of the power that would otherwise be exercised by the party machine.

Perhaps the best recommendation for STV is that Irish voters have consistently rejected every attempt to replace it with a more Fianna Fail-friendly first past the post system.

The time may well be arriving, when the British electorate as well is ready for the power that STV can provide.






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