Friday, 22 January 2010

Coming soon: a rigged election

You have to turn to a foreign publication to get the truth about Britain's woeful electoral system. Here's Der Spiegel:


In Labour's heyday, election districts were gerrymandered in such a way that the party still enjoys a massive built-in advantage today. This means that even if the Tories win many more votes than Labour, they could still lose the election.


At the last election Labour achieved a 60 seat majority on the e back of slightly over a third of the total votes cast. At the time I was amazed people were not angrier about the scandalous result - especially given the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh constituencies which do not even return MPs to Westminster to decide on their own domestic affairs. In England, Labour polled less well than the Conservatives, yet still won more seats. In Wales, Labour piled up seats in constituencies on average a third less populous than their English counterparts. A more equal voting system would have produced a hung Parliament, and we would have been spared the last, dreadful years of Blair and Brown.

The Independent is reporting that, if he manages to win any sort of majority this year, David Cameron will act to cut the number of seats by 10% and also to redraw constituency boundaries in time for the following election. I'm glad the Tories are finally taking this matter seriously. Had they been more with it in the early Nineties they might have been able to at least temper the dangerously large majorities that Labour. It's worth remembering that in 1992 John Major obtained the largest number of votes ever cast for any political party, a full 8% ahead of what Kinnock's Labour achieved, and yet only obtained a majority of twenty seats.

If Cameron pulls off a similar feat this time there will be a hung Parliament. It is possible, however, that Gordon Brown's discredited Labour government could achieve fewer votes than the Conservatives and yet remain Prime Minister with a small majority. If that were to happen, there would probably not be a constitutional crisis. But there should be. A more likely result would be a hung Parliament, in which Labour might well - on a minority of votes - be the single largest party, its forces boosted by MPs from Scotland and Wales who have (or ought to have) little to do at Westminster. In such a situation, Nick Clegg would come under severe pressure from his MPs to prop up a defeated government. Add in the likely influence of dubious postal votes in securing some marginal constituencies, and we have the makings of an Iran-style travesty. Except we can't expect pro-democracy campaigners to come out on the streets in support of David Cameron.

Predictably, Labour sources are accusing the Conservatives of wanting to gerrymander the electoral system to their own advantage. Ministers "fear that it would prolong Labour's spell in the electoral wilderness if it loses this year" reports the Independent. We can hope. It's telling, though, that Labour should regard adjusting constituency boundaries to reduce the blatant bias in its favour is somehow improper. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is toying with a referendum on electoral reform; he favours Alternative Vote, a system that would, if implemented, tend to produce even larger Labour majorities than the party has enjoyed on its under-40% share of the vote since 1997. This will be sold to the electorate as "fairer" and "more proportional". It isn't.

Ever since that disastrous Cameron poster launch, it has become fashionable to talk up the possibility of a hung Parliament. Yet most still expect the Conservatives to poll far more votes than Labour. Few people know or care about electoral arrangements. They assume, because they haven't been told otherwise, that we have a reasonably fair electoral system in which the party with the most votes will win. In fact it resembles a football match in which one side starts with a five goal lead and the other with eight men and no goalie. Both main parties, to say nothing of the media, are acting as though nothing is amiss.

If the Conservatives wait until after an expected victory, it may well be too late. They should start campaigning against the biased electoral system straight away. They should make it one of the key election issues. Their aim should be to induce real anger amongthe public about the rigged nature of the system. That at least should be good for a few votes in marginal seats. Otherwise we could be sleepwalking into a democratic disaster, in which the people cast their votes for one party and wake up the next morning to discover that the losing party has won.