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1 February 2008

Who’s afraid of electoral reform?

Jean Lambert says its more than time Labour got around to fulfilling its 1997 manifesto pledge to ho

By Jean Lambert

Labour made a manifesto commitment to reviewing the electoral system in 2001 and there have been many failed attempts to start the ball rolling. Seven years later we are presented with the review and the response from campaigners has generally been quite positive. It’s seen as being a fairly even-handed, comprehensive review of the voting systems currently used in the UK, with plenty of positive comments about Proportional Representation.

The review in fact goes so far as to demolish some of the arguments most cherished by opponents of electoral reform. And some of the conclusions of the study certainly point to an open approach to altering the first past the post system (FPTP) for the House of Commons.

For instance, the review found there was “not a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective government”, although it did of course recognise that “with a greater number of parties involved under PR, the political landscape can be more dynamic.” And it noted that in the experience of the UK, coalition governments can be just as stable as single-party governments.

It went on to say that “one of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV (single transferable vote), is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected.”

This is a key concern of many groups. At the moment party campaign budgets are focused in swing seats, with safe constituencies being virtually ignored. If you live in a swing constituency your vote counts far more than in a neighbouring safe seat. With proportional representation everyone’s vote can make a difference.

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The review also concluded that it did not find “any evidence to suggest that voters find one voting system easier or more confusing than another voting system.”

However, while these are warm words from the Ministry of Justice, the Government’s reluctance to engage with the public on this issue is clear given the lack of fanfare surrounding the release of the report. Voting matters and so do the systems used and yet there has been no attempt by the Government to ask voters about their experiences and opinions.

If the Government needed any convincing that the citizens are interested in our voting systems then they should consider the response that the Independent received in 2005 to a petition they ran calling for electoral reform. They managed to raise 40,000 signatures in just a few weeks. The I Want A Referendum on the European treaty campaign has been going for many months with a large, nationwide advertising campaign yet it has only raised 35,000 signatures.

The publishing of this review fulfils one of Labour’s 2001 commitments, but their 1997 manifesto commitment for a referendum on proportional representation is still outstanding. It is high time Gordon Brown fulfilled that pledge. The Government has dragged its feet for long enough on Lords reform – we must not have a similar delay towards serious consideration of this report. 

Jean Lambert is on the management committee of www.makevotescount.org.uk. She was first elected Green Party Member of the European Parliament for London in the 1999 European elections and was re-elected in 2004. She is one of nine MEPs representing London and one of two UK Green representatives in the European Parliament.

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