Penance for our sins

In the days of the empire, Britain imposed its voting system
on other countries. Many of those ex-

The flaws of first-past-the-post (FPTP) are well known: it penalises small parties, wastes votes and encourages politicians to focus their policies around a handful of swing voters in marginal seats. For all that, it remains the dominant system, not only in the UK, but also in the world's sole superpower, the United States, and in the world's largest democracy, India.

That India adopted this method was due in large part to the pernicious influence of the British empire, but imperialism alone cannot explain its decades-long retention. New Zealand, another former colony, voted in favour of proportional representation in referendums in 1992 and 1993. In Australia, a form of preferential voting was adopted in 1918.

Unlike Britain and India, the US engaged in a significant but largely unknown experiment with proportional representation (PR). Between 1915 and 1936, two dozen cities in the US adopted the single transferable vote (STV) for local elections.

The campaign for electoral reform was led by the Progressive Movement, an umbrella coalition of civil rights activists, constitutional reformers and left-wingers. Campaigners rallied behind PR in an attempt to counter the overweening power of urban party machines such as Tammany Hall, which repeatedly rigged the vote in New York.

First-past-the-post often produced astonishingly distorted results. As Douglas Amy notes in his illuminating pamphlet on the subject, STV: a Progressive Cause - a Short History of STV in the US, in the last pre-reform election in New York the Democrats won 95.3 per cent of the seats on only 66.5 per cent of the vote.

The city's adoption of STV in 1936 prompted 11 others to follow suit. Yet, by 1962, all but one American city - Cambridge, Massachusetts - had abandoned it. A mixture of racism and anti-communist hysteria led to the decline of PR. In Cincinnati, where two African Americans were elected to the city council, demagogic opponents of STV exploited white fears over black power and warned that a "Negro mayor" could be elected. In 1957 the system was repealed.

PR was abandoned in New York at the height of McCarthyism; the election of several communist candidates was used to discredit the system at large. In a scurrilous campaign, Democratic politicians denounced STV as an "importation from the Kremlin", as "the first beachhead of communist infiltration in the country" and as "an un-American practice". New York's sudden reversal encouraged a succession of other cities to return to FPTP.

Throw out party bosses

Campaigners have been keen to emphasise that STV was not abandoned because it failed. On the contrary, it was abandoned because it was too successful. "STV worked too well in throwing party bosses out of government, bosses who never relented in their attempts to regain power," Amy writes.

In India, first-past-the-post was taken up in the hope that it would lead to stable government, amid the communal bloodshed that followed Partition in 1947. The system initially ensured the Congress party's electoral hegemony, allowing it to remain in power for 30 consecutive years. In 1977, however, the decision by the opposition to form a coalition, the Janata Morcha (or "people's movement"), deprived Congress of its majority. From dominance by a single party, the system evolved into one (unusual under FPTP) based on competing coalitions.

Some of India's parties are able to benefit from the winner-takes-all set-up in their regional strongholds. At the last election, Biju Janata Dal, based in Orissa, won 14 seats in the Lok Sabha, despite receiving just 1.59 per cent of the vote. Thus, unlike in Britain, minority parties do not invariably support electoral reform. First-past-the-post has also retained significant support thanks to the practice of reserving seats for socially marginalised and historically disadvantaged groups, known as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The constitution reserves 79 seats for the former and 41 seats for the latter. Despite intermittent calls for reform, notably by the Communist Party, these astute concessions have ensured that the system will survive in India for some time yet.

In Britain, first-past-the-post has endured largely thanks to the self-interested support of Labour and the Conservatives, who benefit disproportionately from it. More recently, anti-fascist campaigners have also warned that PR could allow the British National Party to win representation in Westminster, providing the BNP with a national platform.

Gordon Brown may have promised a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) if Labour is re-elected, but this method can prove even less proportional than the status quo. One estimate suggests that, under AV, Labour's 1997 majority would have ballooned from 179 to 245. Campaigners remain hopeful that Brown will undergo a Damascene conversion to PR and take up Alan Johnson's proposal of a referendum on AV+ on the same day as the next general election.

It is time for Britain, responsible for the original sin of first-past-the-post, to find ways of offering a more enlightened example to the world.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.