In light of the result of the recent General Election, and the subsequent coalition agreement between my party and the Liberal Democrats, the issue of electoral reform has been propelled to the political centre-stage. Our tried-and-tested First Past the Post electoral system now faces an unprecedented level of scrutiny from all angles, much of which is, at best, misinformed. At such a fast-paced and chaotic period of political history, it is important that we take time to reflect on the merits of a system that has served us well for so long.
The effects of proportional representation should not be underestimated. In January of last year, for example, two Green MSPs managed to prevent the passage of a new budget in the Scottish Parliament. These are two out of 129 MSPs in Parliament, elected by proportional representation. Proponents of the system argue it is by far the fairest way to reflect the voting intentions of the people as a whole. The argument goes that the legislative assembly is more truly ‘representative’ of the people under PR, as it reflects the proportion of the votes cast. By extension, proponents suggest that this makes the legislature more legitimate and democratic. Though I recognise the merit of these arguments, I find it astonishing that, eighty-two years after women were given equal voting rights, some commentators still find the time to call our electoral system undemocratic.
These same commentators ignore the fact that, in stark contrast to the current system, legislatures elected under proportional representation often fail to achieve the most vital aspect required of it: decisiveness. The SNP has bumbled through as a minority government since it was elected in 2007, struggling to operate effectively, having failed to get an overall majority from the Scottish population. The two Green MSPs were able to humble the SNP, despite an £11 million sop offered to them, precisely because no party held a clear majority required for the passage of a budget. The entire budget was thrown out the window; and with it the truth behind ‘merits’ of proportional representation were revealed.
It is no wonder then, given the experience of the Scottish Parliament, that Scottish members of the Westminster Parliament are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post - indeed the member for Central Ayrshire is the co-Chairman of the Group. They have seen the mayhem in Scotland and are best placed to know an unworkable mess when they see one.
Moreover, at a time when public trust in politics remains worryingly low, it is important that constituents are able to directly hold MPs to account. Under First Past the Post, constituents can directly hold MPs to account on their expenses. The same cannot be said at a European level, precisely because they are elected by proportional representation. If representatives are to be allocated nationally by way of proportionality, and not on a constituency basis, how are constituents to know who is representing them in Brussels? I offer £100 to constituents at surgeries to name our MEPs and I have so far not lost a penny. Likewise, I do not envisage this offer causing me many financial problems if we adopt a system of proportional representation.
There is, of course, the worrying danger posed by fringe parties. Because of the system introduced in London, the BNP now has a member on the Greater London Assembly. Contrast this with their recent performance at the General Election under First Past the Post, where the party failed to secure any of the 338 seats they contested. In a time of recession, it is possibly the worst time to reintroduce a system that saw the rise of the far right across Europe, during the Great Depression.
The main problem with PR, however, is that it is a distraction from bigger issues of the day. We have just emerged from a deep recession. Unemployment remains high. Proportional representation does nothing to affect any economic issues. As such, it baffles me that it is regarded as a national priority.
During the course of the last parliament I set up the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Promotion of the First Past the Post Electoral System. Together with my friend and co-chairman, Labour MP Brian Donohoe, we interacted with the previous government to campaign against abandoning our precious tried and test voting system. I am convinced that it is down to the good work of many Labour MPs in the previous parliament objecting to a full blown version of PR which prevented Gordon Brown from pursing a complete destruction of our voting system for political gain.
Of course, we must recognise that all coalitions are about compromise. This one is no different. That is why my Conservative colleagues and I will support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote in the House of Commons. This does not, however, affect the position I will take during the referendum campaign. Though I do regard AV as the ‘least worst’ reforming option – after all it would still allow me to passionately represent Shrewsbury and Atcham in Parliament – I do believe that the system is fundamentally flawed.
Those who claim that AV would make the House of Commons more proportional need only look towards the report published by the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins. It rejected the AV system, noting that ‘far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it’, going on to reveal that ‘its effects are disturbingly unpredictable’.
Indeed, what I object to under AV is the fact that, if you do not reach 50 per cent, you have to appeal towards the second preference choices of the smaller parties until somebody gains 50 per cent. That would mean Conservative candidates in certain seats having to appeal to supporters of the minority and narrow-interest parties.
Why, though, should a second choice preference count as much as the initial ballots cast? To equate somebody’s voting intention and commitment in the same way as somebody’s second choice is ludicrous. I believe that party candidates should put their ideals, their passion and their vision for the constituency directly to the electorate. Their views should not be skewed or altered in order to create a catch-all profile. Voters should then decide who wins by placing their vote, and their faith, in the representative who matches their views the closest. The representative who gains the most votes cast should then be elected.
Perhaps it is best for us to take a leaf out of the AV supporters’ book. The FPTP system, in their view, should be scrapped because it lacks legitimacy as a number of votes are ‘ignored’. If we are to hold a referendum on AV, then, it is only fair that any changes are implemented if they hold the support of a clear majority of the electorate.
That is why I intend to table an amendment to any referendum Bill to make it a requirement that 40 per cent of the electorate accept the new electoral system before any implementation. This sensible approach to constitutional change is not new: indeed this would be the same threshold that was used in the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, which allowed for greater discussion of the implications of change.
One thing remains certain. Fundamental constitutional change should not be enacted by process of a knee-jerk reaction. It is all too easy for voters to pledge support for change to the electoral system; understanding the implications of this change is, however, something different. But the implications of AV could not be clearer: a more disproportional system; legislative gridlock; impersonal politics. These are the implications which I will strive to ensure are fully understood by the electorate during any referendum campaign.
With the forthcoming London Olympic in 2012, let us hope the winner of the Gold medal is still First Past the Post, and is not a calculation of the distance between the first, second and third places.