The Church and justice in voting

The following letter, by Colin Buchanan (the last President of the Electoral Reform Society), was published in Church Times on 23 January:


Your report by Tim Wyatt (16 January) of Show Up, a movement to 'encourage Christians to get involved in politics', did not touch on a major factor in 'disillusionment'. The simple truth is that voting under our present 'First-past-the-post' electoral system is for large numbers a fruitless exercise. In the past this has been most marked in the 200 or so 'safe' seats, where voting is cosmetic only; but in may this year we may also see 200 or more seats where no less than five political parties (six in Scotland) with nationwide credibility are in contention with each other, and with other minor parties also standing. The upshot could be large numbers of MPs (of almost any persuasion) returned with a vote of between 20% and 35% of those who voted, and returned not because they were most wanted, but because the five-way split of votes made it wholly random which of the candidates would be returned - and the chances are that the result would not only be random, but would in a proportion of seats return the candidate least wanted by the 65%-80% of the electors who had voted for other parties.

The curious factor in this is that for nearly 100 years the Church of England has used the wholly just system of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in its own major elections, and thus holds the high moral ground over against the injustices we are likely to see in the May election. In our General Synod, and its committees, we can demonstrate that the people have elected the people they wanted - the present parliamentary system cannot do that all.

This is a justice question, and, if we are to do what the report advocates by 'seeing politics as another mission field', then please can all who are speaking for us, and all who have a chance actually to engage, put the axe to the root of our unjust electoral system? Exhorting folk to vote within a laissez faire acceptance of the system is precisely opting out of our 'mission' responsibility.

Yours sincerely

Colin Buchanan (retired bishop)

STV would help solve the devolution problem

This is an extract from Anthony Tuffin’s evidence on The Future of devolution after the [Scottish] referendum to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:

What implications does further devolution to Scotland have for how the House of Commons should deal with legislation that deals with only part of the UK?

It is totally unacceptable for MPs for Scottish (or indeed Welsh, Northern Irish or Greater London) constituencies to vote on issues for Sussex and Yorkshire that MPs from those counties cannot vote on in relation to the devolved areas.

The Conservative Party is absolutely right in saying that about Scottish MPs but I have not heard it say it about London MPs.

Although the Labour Party is right to be suspicious of the Conservative’s real motives in wanting to reduce the voting rights of MPs from Scotland, Labour must recognize that the present situation is untenable and, with more devolution, will become more so. Ostensibly, the Labour Party thinks it would be wrong to have two classes of MPs, but we already have two classes of MPs.

Both parties are more concerned about party advantage of whether about 40 Labour MPs from Scotland should be able to vote than about fairness, democracy or what would be constitutionally right and proper.

Both parties are ignoring the elephant in the room of the First Past The Post (Winner takes all) voting system, which distorts voters’ views. It exaggerates Labour supremacy in Scotland and Conservative supremacy in England.

Electoral reform is essential to any new constitutional settlement.

Parliamentary elections by Single Transferable Vote (STV) would increase the proportion of Labour MPs to Conservative MPs from England and reduce the party’s dependency on Scottish MPs votes. It would increase the proportion of Conservative MPs from Scotland and reduce the party’s dependency on English MPs’ votes.

The Labour Party would have less to fear, and the Conservative Party would have less to gain, from restrictions on the voting rights of Scottish MPs. This should make it easier to reach agreement.

First Past The Post exaggerates political differences between England and Scotland. It makes England look more Conservative than its voters are and makes Scotland look more Labour than its voters are. It disunites the United Kingdom.

STV would reduce or eliminate the exaggerations. It would present a more accurate picture in the House of Commons of the UK as it is.

Although STV might not solve the whole problem, it would help considerably to reduce it.

Voting dissatisfaction

There is probably more dissatisfaction with UK democracy than at any time since women first got the vote for parliamentary elections in 1918.

Unfortunately, it is spread across such a wide range of issues that it tends to be dissipated.

For example:

House of Lords reform seems long overdue, but is reforming the revising chamber really more urgent than electing the main legislative body democratically so it actually represents the voters?

There are arguments for and against votes at 16, but is there really much point giving votes to 16 and 17 year olds in the 70% of constituencies which are so safe that their votes will be wasted, just like the votes of their parents and grandparents are?

There is understandable concern about people not registering to vote, but many of them may have decided not to register because they know their votes will not be effective. There is some debate about this on where another contributor and I have asked why people should register when the chances are their votes will have absolutely no effect. The same applies to making voting easier with online voting, voting at any polling station, weekend voting etc.

Some think the solution is to have “None Of The Above” (NOTA) on the ballot paper and there is even a NOTA organization now, but its supporters totally miss two vital points.

The first is that one or more of the candidates may be perfectly acceptable or even ideal as potential MPs (so you could not vote NOTA) but they have no chance of election in a safe constituency. The second is that NOTA would not have given Liberal Democrat voters the representation they earned in 2010 and would not give UKIP voters the representation they are forecast to earn this May. If you visit you can see some debate about this and join in if you wish.

The fundamental problem is that the present voting system is unrepresentative of voters' wishes, restricts voter choice and makes most votes ineffective. Only the Single Transferable Vote (STV) can solve all these problems. Reformers should concentrate on that first.

After STV has been established, it may be worth considering some of the other changes that have been suggested.

Reports of the death of electoral reform have been greatly exaggerated

MPs recommend research into electoral reform.

A Select Committee, investigating Voter Engagement (why many people do not vote) reported today. Most of its more publicized recommendations, like making registering and voting easier, will make little or no difference because most votes make no difference under First Past The Post – and many people realize that although they do not all know why.

However, with less publicity, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of MPs, has also recommended that, early in the next Parliament, the Government commission research on alternatives to the First Past The Post voting system for general elections

In its interim report last November, the Committee had summarily dismissed electoral reform despite receiving considerable evidence in favour of reform generally and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in particular.

Not only that but, when the Committee invited comments on its interim report, it did not specifically invite comments on electoral reform.

Despite that, of those who responded to the interim report, 36 witnesses recommended electoral reform and half of those (18) proposed STV. Most of the rest did not suggest a particular system. Several of the 36 complained that, in its interim report, the Committee had ignored the evidence it had requested.

It must have been because of those 36 witnesses that, instead of dismissing electoral reform again, the Committee used its final report to recommend research into alternative voting systems.

It is a great pity that the Electoral Reform Society made only a passing reference to electoral reform in its evidence last year and did not give any evidence at all in response to the interim report.

The electoral reform movement owes a considerable debt to all those who did give evidence in support of reform.

Of course, the post-election Government may be reluctant to accept the recommendation. It is essential that the Liberal Democrats and other minor parties make electoral reform a red-line issue in any coalition negotiations.

Also commissioning research is a well-practised way of kicking any issue into the long grass. We must all – including the ERS this time – keep electoral reform in the public eye and insist on action.

Paragraph 6 of the report’s Conclusions and Recommendations states:

“A large number of respondents to our consultation felt that the First Past the Post electoral system disenfranchised them, and meant that for them it was not worth voting. It is hard to dispute that in safe seats, where the incumbent has a large majority and the party of the elected representative is unlikely to change at a general election, there is a reduced incentive to participate at elections. This can only have a negative impact on voter engagement. We note that a wide range of electoral systems are already in use for various elections that take place across the UK, and the supremacy of one particular electoral system should therefore not be presumed.”

You may see the full report at and we especially recommend paragraphs 14 – 16, 111 – 113 and 118.

The Committee’s recommendation for research is less than we hoped for but more than we feared. It is the first step back, after the disastrous AV referendum in 2011, to putting electoral reform firmly back on the political agenda. Reports of the death of electoral reform have been greatly exaggerated.

But let’s not underestimate the strength of the vested interests that oppose us, especially in reforming the way we elect MPs. The more attainable reform of local government elections in England and Wales should remain our top priority for the time being.

A lesson from Rotherham

According to the BBC, Government commissioners are poised to take over Rotherham council after a report exposed a "culture of denial" over the town's child exploitation scandal.

The council had been dominated by one party for some time with weak opposition and little accountability for the majority council group.

As it happens, Labour is the majority group there but it is not for us to blame one party or another for the scandal. However, we strongly suspect that First Past The Post voting, which gave one party an exaggerated majority and weakened the opposition, must take some of the blame.

MPs report tomorrow

A Committee of MPs will issue its Final Report tomorrow on voter engagement and why many people do not vote. In its Interim Report last November, the Committee dismissed considerable evidence in support of electoral reform in general and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in particular.

Since then, it has received even more evidence in support of electoral reform and STV.

Will the Committee this time acknowledge the weight of opinion in favour of reform and recommend reform or at least a more detailed consideration of it or will the Committee keep its head in the sand, from where it cannot possibly see the elephant in the room of electoral reform? Why should people vote when they know it makes no difference?

Look out for its report tomorrow!

The electoral reform movement owes a great deal to the 36 witnesses who, in response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s Interim Report on Voter Engagement, gave written evidence that electoral reform was at least part of the solution. This as especially remarkable because the Committee had studiously avoided asking specifically for views on electoral reform when it invited comments on its Interim Report.

Eighteen of the 36 referred in particular to STV.

The Electoral Reform Society’s first and main object is “To secure the adoption of ... STV ...” but, sadly, it gave no evidence.

As Kevin Cleary wrote in his evidence, “I can see no point in voting. I know who my MP will be after the next election barring an Act of God or some unexpected scandal.”

Our roll of honour contains the following 18, who suggested STV:

Oliver Maddison
Christopher Heyes
STV Action
Thomas G F Gray
A.C James
Michael Meadowcroft
Peter Davidson
Anthony Tuffin
Dr David Hill
Make Votes Count in West Sussex
Tim Ivorson
Jim Halcrow
Dr James Gilmour
Keith Underhill
Nigel Siederer
Brian Wichmann
John Cross
Colin Buchanan

All the written evidence in response to the Interim Report is available at

Government Review nails accusation against STV

Today is the seventh anniversary of the Ministry of Justice's Review of Voting Systems.

As the review stated in paragraph 21 of the Executive Summary:

"All the newly introduced voting systems have achieved a greater degree of [party] proportionality than FPTP, although only STV in Northern Ireland has achieved what academic observers consider to be close to genuine [party] proportionality."

This nails the accusation by some that STV is less party proportionate than other PR systems. In any case, STV offers many other advantages that other PR systems do not. Not least of those is that only STV can provide proportionality of any other significant points of view that matter to voters.

STV also increases voter power, maximizes voter choice and ensures that all MPs are elected the same way so there are no disputes about whether some are elected more legitimately than others.

Please see for other quotations from the Review.

“How do we get rid of you?”

To celebrate today’s 750th anniversary of the first English parliament summoned by Simon de Montfort, let’s repeat five questions the late Tony Benn liked to ask of those in power:

• What power have you got?
• Where did you get it from?
• In whose interest do you use it?
• To whom are you accountable?
• How do we get rid of you?

Unfortunately, the party political system and First Past The Post (winner takes all) voting, which creates safe seats for most MPs, mean that most of then get power from their party so they use it in the interests of the party, are accountable to the party and, realistically, can be got rid of only by the party.

Voting by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) would change that.

With STV, all MPs would get power from the voters so they would use power in the interests of the voters, they would be accountable to the voters and the voters could get rid if them.

STV v other PR systems

Most PR systems weaken the link between MPs and their constituents. Actually, it is not very strong with FPTP and STV would strengthen it.

Most PR systems would strengthen party power and reduce voter power compared with FPTP. STV would reduce party power and strengthen voter power.

Most PR systems encourage factions within parties to split off and form their own parties, which can lead to a large number of small parties and instability, as especially in Israel. STV helps factions within parties (e.g. pro or anti EU or pro or anti a local bypass) to express their views within the party without leaving it.

With most PR systems and, indeed with FPTP, post-election coalitions are formed by politicians behind closed doors. With STV, voters can tell the politicians which coalition they would prefer and punish them at the following election if the politicians ignore them. For example, Conservative voters could show with their later preferences whether they preferred coalition with UKIP or the Lib Dems. Lib Dems could indicate whether they preferred coalition with Labour or Conservative.

Although all PR systems provide fairer representation of parties than FPTP does, only STV also provides fairer representation of people.

STV Constituencies (Save money, avoid controversy, more stability, longer MP/constituents relationships)

One of the perceived obstacles to electoral reform is the work and time to redraw constituency boundaries.

For AMS or AV+, redrawing the boundaries would indeed be a major task. It would also be a controversial one as, although less significant to the overall result than in First Past The Post elections, they could have some effect and every party would do its best to influence the boundaries to its own advantage.

By contrast redrawing for STV would be very simple.

The simplest way, to introduce STV quickly, would be just to amalgamate groups of about five single-member constituencies together to form multi-member constituencies, each of which would elect about five MPs by STV. During the subsequent Parliament, boundaries could be redrawn to link more with natural communities.

Better still with a little more work, the new multi-member constituencies could be based on local authority districts to provide not only a high level of proportionality, but also links with natural communities. Here is such a plan that someone prepared earlier:

Of course, one of STV’s many advantages is that, once drawn, constituency boundaries would rarely need changing. This would not only save work and public money but would also avoid controversy and potential gerrymandering. Moreover, it would introduce greater stability and encourage longer relationships between MPs and constituents.

If a multi--member constituency covered a town and its surrounding countryside and there was a population movement between the town and countryside but no change in the overall population, the constituency could remain unchanged.

A population change, which might be quite significant to a single-member constituency, would be less significant to a multi-member one.

When there is significant change to the population of a multi-member constituency, it may be more appropriate to change the number of MPs than to change the boundaries. This would avoid the knock-on effect on other constituencies that changing boundaries has.

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