Lord Roberts writes … Our Electoral System – not fit for purpose

The need to reform the Electoral System was underlined by a number of us on the Liberal Democrat benches in the House of Lords.The possibility of it being included in the Queen’s Speech was always minimal but we dared to hope..

We are still living in an age with a system that goes back 200 years. We are trying to run a modern democracy on a dinosaur of a system. In 1832, the Great Reform Act just doubled the electorate from half a million to 1 million. In 1867, the electorate was increased to 2.5 million. In 1884, agricultural workers were added and the electoral total went up to 5 million.

In 1918, the great leap forward came when women aged over 30 were given the vote and the total electorate became 21 million. This was further increased to 28 million in 1928 when women and men aged 21 and over could vote. In 1960, 18 year-olds were added and today the total electorate is in the region of 45 million.

We are using a system devised for half a million people for an electorate that is now 45 million. The system goes back to the time when there were only two parties, Whigs and Tories, later Liberals and Conservatives. There were straight fights in every constituency apart from those with unopposed returns. So, if you had more than 50 per cent of the vote, you would be certain of being elected. The number of unopposed returns surprised me. In 1900, there were 243 unopposed returns, in 1918, there were 107 and in 1935 there was the last large number of unopposed returns – 40.

In 1910, Wales had only one three-cornered fight, which was in Swansea. Otherwise, it was straight fights all the way. A system devised for two parties is not fit for purpose in a multiparty situation.

From 1922, with the formation of Labour, three-cornered contests became the norm. Now you did not need 50 per cent to win a seat. As time progressed, Scotland and Wales, with the addition of nationalist candidates, had four-cornered contests. In 1992, my late colleague, Lord Russell-Johnston, won Inverness with only 26 per cent of the votes. As we know, England now has many seats where there are four, five or more candidates.

A system devised for just two parties, with one certainly getting 50 per cent of the votes, is now completely untenable. In 2005, only 47 per cent of electors voted for a winning candidate. Therefore, more than half, 53 per cent, voted for candidates who failed. Of the Members of Parliaments returned, 426 gained fewer than half the votes in their constituency. The system is clearly unfit for purpose.

The Labour Party and the Conservative Party admit this when they elect their own leadership. They never elect a leader on a first-past-the-post basis. They will go to a second and a third vote. If necessary, they will go to a fourth vote. If a system is not satisfactory for their own elections, why do they maintain its use for parliamentary elections to Westminster ?

I know that there is opposition to electoral reform and that some of my friends on other benches take an entirely different view from me. But it was the new PR system in Wales and Scotland that saved the Conservative Party from total oblivion. In the first elections held in 1999, without a top-up system there would not have been a single Conservative in the Welsh Assembly and only one in the Scottish Parliament. So if it is useful to have a different system for the Parliaments of Wales and Scotland why do we continue to reject such a fair voting system for the Westminster Parliament?

We are living in a country that is far more diverse than it was 200 or even 50 years ago. We are multicultural, multifaith and multinationality. Should we not ensure the fair representation of such a wide range of communities? With only one member for each constituency, we are not going to get that fairness.

STV especially would encourage harmony within communities, would produce a result reflecting electoral support, and would foster a sense of belonging in all members of those communities. That means a multi-member system, and I do not see any alternative. There are many ways of doing it, and we can discuss them.

PR system prevents the feeling of resentment and rejection. The vast majority of people will have a representative of their choice.

In Inverness in 1992 only 26 per cent of the people elected the Member of Parliament, STV would mean that 70 to 80 per cent of the electors would cast an effective vote. Surely that is a fair system for these times, one where people generally would feel that they have a stake in Parliament, which they do not under the present system.

I shall quote from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights where it states:

Everyone has a right to take part in the government of his country.”

Nobody is left outside and nobody is in a minority. At the moment we are engaged in a campaign in this House to make sure that all members of our Armed Forces, whether they are serving at home or overseas, have an effective vote in the coming general and local elections. I hope that we will be able to devise a system to ensure that. But it would be sad if, having got ballot papers out to Afghanistan or wherever else it might be, those votes did not count in the end.

I know that there are long-standing prejudices to this sort of new electoral system, but it is essential in a much enlarged constituency and a multi-faith country that some change is made that is meaningful in the 21st century.

* Lord (Roger) Roberts of Llandudno is the Lib Dems’ spokesperson on International Development in the House of Lords.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Gosh, if only there were a political party which supported some sort of reform…

    I think we might be preaching to the converted here.

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