This guest post is from Colin Buchanan, Retired bishop and Hon President of the Electoral Reform Society 2005-12. Colin wrote the Grove booklet An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform, which can be bought from the Grove books website.
At the time I write this Anglicans up and down the country are completing their ballot papers to elect the clergy and lay members of General Synod for the coming quinquennium. Those with any interest in voting must be struck by the contrast between the votes they cast in May in the parliamentary election and the very different kind of votes they are recording now.
At the point of voting in the General Election, voters recorded a simple ‘X’ against their favoured candidate on the ballot paper – they were for that one, and correspondingly against, and equally against, all the others. In the General Synod election voters carefully sort out the candidates in an order of preference, and mark the voting paper with a ‘preferential’ vote (‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and so on). The vote is a single vote, but it is transferable – so that if a first preference goes to a no-hoper, that no-hoper candidate is eliminated for the next round of counting, and the vote is transferred to its second preference.
For a single vacancy the method is described as the Alternative Vote (the very system on which we all voted – and lost – in the 2011 referendum), but for General Synod only the diocese of Sodor and Man elects to a single vacancy – all the other dioceses in England will elect a minimum of three clergy and three laity. The voters still record ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ all the way down the list. I have been voting to fill ten clergy vacancies for our new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, and with 22 candidates the ranking by preference down to 22 is demanding, but it is exact and fair. And each candidate who can raise 9.1% of the vote will be elected (i.e. the smallest number 11 candidates cannot get), and thus the electorate will by transfers have turned itself into 11 different support groups, 10 of which will have elected someone, and one group alone will be those who are left supporting the ‘runner-up’. 91% of the electorate will have found, whether or not after transfers, someone whom they could prefer to the others. This is true proportional representation, and it enables voters to weigh personalities and individual convictions as well as major policies when recording their votes.
What a contrast with the General Election! Where I live in West Yorkshire 55.4% of the voters did not elect anybody – only 44.6% did. And in Belfast South 24.5% (yes, under 25%) elected their member, and 75.5% voted for losers. And, whereas (to take one example) the Labour party is struggling with a major defeat at the election, in fact it is still greatly over-represented in the Commons – with 35% of the seats from 30% of the votes. The ‘first-past-the-post’ system (FPTP) wiped them out in Scotland (quite unfairly), so they did even better in the rest of the United Kingdom with almost 40% of the seats from 30% of the votes. The real losers were not Labour but UKIP, Lib Dems and Greens, who between them had votes which, on a fair distribution, would have provided over 150 seats between them, rather than the 10 they actually got. The representation in Parliament is enormously unjust.
In my recent Grove Booklet, An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform (Grove Books, Cambridge, £3.95), I list eight separate headings of ways in which our present parliamentary system is unjust. Please buy it and check those eight out (I can supply it myself postfree). I also point out that the unjust system is being defended by those who are elected by it, and they are the only persons in position to change it. I also belong to a Church which states that the fourth ‘mark of mission’ is ‘to seek to transform unjust structures of society’. Here we hold the high moral ground (and have done for 95 years) but are all too weak at preaching from it. How can we shame our MPs about their own election?
Colin can be contacted at email@example.com or tel: 0113-2677721