Opinion: Vote for Fairer Votes to End Safe Seats

I grew up in Bournemouth, a bucolic place beside the sea where very little disturbs the peace. For over a century, Bournemouth’s politics at parliamentary level have been as sedate. In every election since Queen Victoria was on the throne, the same party has won. A candidate dons a blue rosette, shows up and becomes the MP. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have valiantly tried their best in recent elections, the two Bournemouth constituencies are like many places across the country where General elections do not really matter, where elections are a foregone conclusion, places where real power lies in the hands of the local Conservative or Labour party selection committees.

It was no wonder that when I was becoming politically aware my local Conservative MP could afford to ignore the letters sent to him by the sixth form Amnesty International group I belonged to. Our views did not matter and nor did the views of those who voted for other parties. Labour supporters were forced into an uncomfortable compromise, which we understandably encouraged, whereby they lent their vote to the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to buck the system and bring about change.

The complacency brought about the safe seats culture, which was revealed by the expenses scandal. Whilst not as memorable as the duck house and the moat, former Bournemouth West MP, John Butterfill, we learnt designated a small flat in Bournemouth as his main home but submitted regular claims under the second home allowance on a six bedroom property with extensive grounds near Woking, including a claim for £17,000 on servants’ quarters. Mr Butterfill did not learn his lesson and was later caught out in the cash for lobbying sting. Perhaps, if politics had been a little more competitive in Bournemouth, Mr Butterfill might not have treated his constituency in such a cavalier fashion.

I now live in the London Borough of Richmond where seats have changed hands in living memory (sadly for us once too often in Richmond Park). The knowledge that elections matter in this area creates a more vibrant political scene where continuous campaigning and engagement with the public matters: Jenny Tonge and Susan Kramer knew and Zac Goldsmith and Vince Cable know that they cannot take the electorate for granted.

Of course, AV is not the panacea to all our political ills and it won’t stop the odd rogue from abusing their position but, at the risk of becoming a cliché, it is a small step which has big consequences. For me the biggest benefits are these: on the whole safe seats will disappear, the tawdriness of asking for tactical votes will cease, the views of those who support smaller parties will matter, and, for all parties, there will be no-go areas – in places where the Liberal Democrats have ceased to exist there will be a reason to renew and rebuild. Likewise the handful of Conservatives who support AV, realise it is an excuse to get back in the game in areas where they were wiped out in last two decades. So let us, first, man the street stalls, knock on doors, deliver the leaflets, make the telephone calls, win the referendum and then start the process of building our capacity to win new ground under a fairer voting system.

Roger Crouch is Membership Development Officer for Richmond and Twickenham Liberal Democrats and is actively involved in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign in Richmond and Twickenham.

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21 Comments

  • ‘In every election since Queen Victoria was on the throne, the same party has won.’

    Doesn’t that just mean that that is a reflection of voter preferences then?

  • @Duncan – but what that means is that there’s no real incentive either for people to vote for Labour or the Lib Dems, or indeed to turn out at all, if they think their vote won’t count. I live in a similar part of Fife – except it’s Labour who are entrenched, not the Tories. What the change to STV in the local elections in 2007 was to give other, strong-ish local parties (us and SNP) representation – so people’s votes did actually matter.

  • KL – ‘but what that means is that there’s no real incentive either for people to vote for Labour or the Lib Dems, or indeed to turn out at all, if they think their vote won’t count.’

    Decisions are made by the people who turn up.

    What you appear to be saying here is that you disagree with a decision made by those voters. That is not a reason to change the voting system. If you want a churn of MPs, the best way is to put term limits on rather than telling the voters they are wrong.

  • I’m sorry but this is nonsense, safe seats are only safe because a vast majority of people in that area happen to support one political party, you make a seat Un-safe by winning the argument. The idea that you should have some God given right to overthrow the majority view is entirely un-democratic. I do not understand an arguemnt which says that the democratic will of a seat should be overturned because too many people are against us.

  • Seats become safe because people take a defeatist attitude, if more people voted, there would be a lot less safe seats. AV is not an end to safe seats by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Apr '11 - 9:16pm

    I’m sorry but this is nonsense, safe seats are only safe because a vast majority of people in that area happen to support one political party

    A “vast majority” of some 30%-40% of the people who bothered to vote.

    Actually, wait. That’s not a majority at all.

  • @jedibeeftrix, George W. Potter

    “AV will increase the turnover at general elections from 13% to 16%.”

    Actually, the report found 15%, the 16% figure is only if we switch between FPTP and AV every election. I also find the who NEF report somewhat puzzling, not only is the 16% (or +3% over FPTP) figure somewhat higher than the Essex model on which they base their model on, (it found about a net +5 seats for 2010, or a +0.75% increase) but also looking at their spreadsheet they found no seat which under AV moved a category safer. To put that in context the Essex model that the NEF model is based on, had I think, 23 additional seats changing hand under AV but 18 seats which did change hands under FPTP staying with the incumbant party. To have 192 seats becoming more marginal but not moving a category the other way does not seem to be a very realistic model. But perhaps I am missing something.

  • conservative 16th Apr '11 - 12:04pm

    @andrew suffield

    so what you are saying then is that AV will increase voter turnout? Because when they introduced it in Australia turnout dropper 18% over 2 elections and they had to introduce compulsory voting as a result. Otherwise your statement:

    is actually very misleading as it implies somehow AV will fix this problem which evidence shows is not the case.

    Now what liberal is in favour of compulsory voting?

    properly safe seats – i.e. the ones with no hope of change in a single election – Mr Lamb in North Norfolk say have a majority of voters anyway meaning that AV has no effect on these seats – I thought you were tackling ‘jobs for life’ according to the Yes broadcast but it seems the safest jobs for life as MPs are completely unaffected by AV and only proportionally affected by AV below 50% as the seat become less safe. Are you just therefore trying to make marginal seats more marginal?

  • conservative 16th Apr '11 - 12:05pm

    where your statement was: (but html didn’t work for me)

    A “vast majority” of some 30%-40% of the people who bothered to vote.

    Actually, wait. That’s not a majority at all.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Apr '11 - 8:57pm

    N Makhno at 7.18 pm (Friday 15th April) (and various others by implication) sees no problem with a seat remaining in the same party’s hands on the grounds that that party obviously retains the support of the constituency.

    This would be fine if the people of Bournemouth West, for example, were choosing somebody to run Bournemouth West. But they’re not; they’re taking part in a national election to choose a national parliament. The problem with single-seat constituencies (a problem which AV does almost nothing to resolve) is that people who support parties that have no chance in their area, and people who switch their vote in response to the arguments and events, even if they are switching to the majority party have no impact on the national election result.

  • Ethel Cardew 16th Apr '11 - 9:14pm

    While Mr Crouch states his case with elegance and tenacity, I can not help thinking that AV is neither fish nor fowl. If it’s not d’Hondt, I’m not interested. (OK, Sainte-Lague at a push). A fine article though.

  • @ Malcolm Todd, as you point out, AV does nothing to address the situation of national government, if we stick to the constituency system, AV isn’t worth switching to, it offers nothing substantial over FPTP, if we’re sticking with the status quo, then stick with the status quo.

  • Paul McKeown 19th Apr '11 - 12:43pm

    @jedibeeftix

    a) Open Primaries – not an absolutely terrible idea, it’s just that it’s more elections and few will be bothered to vote. They won’t have the revolutionary effect that Douglas Carswell and his ilk think they will. And there is a danger – if the party machineries were careless – that they could be hijacked by small groups intent on taking over a party, the Militant strategy, Kippers for instance could take over the Conservative Party, that sort of thing. I think Open Primaries would only work well if a lot of people in a constituency were determined to unseat or prevent the selection of a candidate who had earned considerable dislike; perhaps in that circumstance Open Primaries might have some meaning. Open Primaries will be expensive, do you intend the political parties (who find funding difficult enough as it is) to stump up, or do you intend the tax payer to stump up?

    b) Recall will be implemented by this current government, but probably not in the way that rabble rousers wish. There will have to due cause before a sitting MP can be subject to recall. No Californian nonsense here, please.

    c) Open Referenda. Err, no. Just an excuse to stir up a storm about the EU and the EHCR. A Trojan Horse. Parliament is delegated to make decisions, that is why we have an electoral process.

    As for the “Yes to PR, No to AV” lot, pitiful. Anyone who thinks that saying no to AV will do anything but put off the day that “PR” (whatever that is) will be used for British General Elections is entirely deluded, a no vote will be taken as “proof” that the electorate prefer FPTP to any other system. Many of that lot are sincere, but it is quite remarkable how many of the absolutely no under any circumstances brigade (e.g. Michael Howard, David Cameron, George Osborne) are happy to trot out the factoid that AV is not proportional whenever it suits them. “Judaean People’s Front” would be a better tag for “Yes to PR, No to AV”, hopeless splinterist idealists, who prefer dreaming to doing.

    Wasted breath, really. The Yes campaign was stillborn.

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