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Year 2005 No. 67, May 13, 2005 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

The Demand for Electoral Reform

Workers' Daily Internet Edition: Article Index :

The Demand for Electoral Reform

MPs to Table Motion for Voting Reform

Electoral Reform: Why It's Time for Change

"Create a Storm for Reform"

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The Demand for Electoral Reform

The outcome of the election has prompted renewed demands for electoral reform. In the election, New Labour received an absolute majority of Commons seats with the lowest proportion of votes cast since the Reform Act of 1832. These demands are reflecting the fact that whereas an electoral system is seen as fair if it produces a government which reflects the popular will, the present system of universal suffrage has a fundamental flaw, which is that it has not swept away the system of custom and privilege which existed in the 19th century. Thus the reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries, of which the 1832 Reform Act was the first, to extend the franchise and eliminate political corruption, have not resulted in a situation whereby the government which holds political power represents the electorate as a whole. Indeed, the history of elections over the past 60 years since the end of the second world war has seen an increasing crisis in this system of so-called "representative democracy" whereby the interests of capital are dictating political events and economic strategy in the name of the "national interest" and "universal" standards of "democracy". Thus the aim of "representative democracy" itself has been to destroy or render incoherent even the concept of the popular will.

A feature of the 2005 general election has been that this contradiction has been brought to the fore, and the struggle erupting has one facet of whether the demands for electoral reform will assume the shape of a coherent demand for democratic renewal or simply remove the glaring excesses of a "monstrously unfair" electoral system. Of course, in a sense "every little helps", and one of the issues which George Galloway drew attention to in his election victory was the endemic corruption in the drawing up of the electoral roll and the handling of postal votes which amount to electoral fraud. But the question underlying the need for electoral reform is how to renew the political processes and institutions so that political power as represented in a parliamentary assembly of representatives of the electorate embodies the will of all human beings, and their participation on an equal basis in the political and electoral system.

Any other outcome of the demand for electoral reform, whether positive or negative, is bound to leave unresolved the issue of whether and how a government can claim a mandate to govern on behalf of the entire electorate and how fundamental political and economic issues facing domestic and foreign policy, the most glaring of which are the questions of war and peace, the claims on the national social product and of the social well-being of the people, are to be sorted out.

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MPs to Table Motion for Voting Reform

A motion is to be tabled in the House of Commons by a coalition of MPs calling for a special committee to look at changing the electoral system.

At his monthly press conference at Downing Street yesterday, May 12, Tony Blair was asked whether he had a real mandate to govern in England after the Tories secured more votes than Labour in England in last week's election. He denied that this raised questions about his authority. "In the end, I think you have one class of MP," he said.

Frank Field, a senior Labour backbencher, said reform was now a necessity, and is to put down a motion in the Commons calling for a formal inquiry by a parliamentary committee into the voting system. His call for a six-month-long inquiry is supported by other senior Labour figures, the Liberal Democrats and minority parties such as Plaid Cymru.

The "special committee" would look at the implications of the first-past-the-post system and the advantages and disadvantages of reform. The all-party committee would produce a committee report at the end.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said his party believed there should be a Commons committee dedicated to looking at Proportional Representation. "The electoral system must now reflect the sophistication of the voters. Objective consideration of the principle and practice of PR would be an enormous contribution to a debate which is simply not going to go away," Sir Menzies said.

The voting system is being reviewed by the government in the light of the use of PR for elections to the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London. But it has said that this is a "low level" review and not designed to lead to a policy change.

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Electoral Reform: Why It's Time for Change

By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent, The Independent, 10 May 2005

The government is facing calls for a wholesale review of the voting system after the general election was condemned as a "travesty of democracy". Politicians from all parties demanded that the first-past-the-post system be scrapped after Labour formed a government with the smallest share of the vote for more than 100 years.

Constitutional specialists said Tony Blair was in charge of an "elective dictatorship" after Labour was able to win a majority with only 36 per cent of the vote. They say the Prime Minister is able to hold power with the support of just a fifth of the British adult population, the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

A national campaign for voting reform is to kick off this week with public meetings, a vigil outside Downing Street and a petition calling for the government to look at introducing proportional representation systems similar to those in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Continent.

Although the government privately admits the election result gave PR fresh momentum, the issue is likely to split the Cabinet, with electoral reformers such as Peter Hain and Ruth Kelly favouring a rethink and John Prescott and Ian McCartney sharply against. Many union leaders also fear it will lead to coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and prevent Labour from governing again with an absolute majority.

But electoral reformers said yesterday the present voting system was a "blunt instrument" that produced "bizarre" results. In Surrey, more than 148,000 votes were cast for the Liberal Democrats and 87,000 voted Labour, yet every seat was won by the Tories.

"This general election has become a travesty of democracy," said Nina Temple, director of Make Votes Count, which campaigns for electoral reform. "We have now got a Government with a working majority elected by just over one-third of voters. When turnout is taken into account, only 21 per cent of the electorate voted for the Government."

Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea, saw his 5,000 majority slashed to 163 after people voted tactically to protest at Tony Blair. "We have the most unsophisticated system in the world," he said. "By the simplest system of just 1, 2, 3 instead of X you could have a representative system."

The Tories gained 50,000 more votes than Labour in England but got 92 fewer English seats. The Liberal Democrats said if the number of votes cast reflected the number of seats in Parliament they would have more than doubled their number of seats from 62 to 141. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat peer, said the system means "one party can wield absolute power" without a clear majority of votes.

Campaign for Democracy

The election campaign has been notable for a persistent unease, widely expressed by voters of all parties, about British democracy. Areas of concern have included: marginalisation of Parliament, ballot fraud, voter alienation, the Prime Minister's presidential style, the erosion of civil liberties such as habeas corpus and jury trial, compulsory ID cards, the absence of a written constitution, and an electoral system that deprives millions of voters of a meaningful say in the composition of their government. Some would say our democracy is in crisis; few would dispute it is in urgent need of a health check. Over the coming weeks, The Independent will consider some of these issues. And we will particularly welcome input from you, our readers.

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"Create a Storm for Reform"

There is to be a "Make Votes Count" vigil this Tuesday, May 17, in Whitehall opposite Downing Street on the occasion of the Queen’s Speech setting out the government’s legislative programme for this parliament.

The cross-party umbrella campaign "Make Votes Count" is organising the vigil 9am – 12 noon to demand that a referendum on voting reform is held during this parliament.

The campaign, which brings together organisations and individuals campaigning for a referendum on voting reform, points out that the election results were a travesty of democracy. It says, "In this election for every person who voted Labour, almost two voted for other parties and two abstained. Labour was returned to power on the smallest share of the vote ever (described by John Prescott on the Today programme as the government returned by an ‘overwhelming democratic mandate’). If you are angry as we are with this unrepresentative voting system then: Sign the 'make my vote count' petition click here"

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