Reform Is the Way to Make Votes Count; as the Political Spotlight Is Turned on to Westminster's 'First Past the Post' Voting System, Owain Llyr AP Gareth of the Electoral Reform Society Argues That It's Time for Radical Solutions to Reconnect the Country's Disillusioned Voters with the Democratic Process: The Thursday Essay

Article excerpt

Byline: Owain Llyr ap Gareth

WHY change the voting system? No, don't turn the page. And there is no need to feel duty bound to read on because of the usual stipulation given in any article on the subject of electoral reform (and there has certainly been more ink spilt on it than usual following the expenses scandal) - that it is incredibly important but, you know, (whisper it) boring.

Pish-posh, as my dear Nan used to say. It's certainly important. But boring? Only if questions that go to the heart of democracy - of how we choose the politicians who represent us, how we give power to the people through their vote, and how we make sure that politicians are properly answerable to us - do not deserve our attention.

Still doubtful? Look, I'll prove it. It's not how votes are counted that is the exciting thing about making votes count. Rather it is what changing the system does that is exciting - a potential transformation of politics in Britain.

Electoral reform has suddenly come into vogue in British politics.

There have been calls for a new politics, for widespread constitutional reform. There have been renewed calls for a referendum to change the voting system, a pledge in Labour's 1997 manifesto that was so watered down that you couldn't taste the coffee anymore.

So what made politicians wake up and smell the coffee? The expenses scandal crystallised the very problems to which changing the voting system offers a solution.

It illustrated the complete disconnection of a political class completely cut off from the people they supposedly represent..

The UK is the last European bastion of "first past the post" (FPTP) - the way we vote for our MPs by placing a cross next to a candidate in particular constituencies.

This system creates results that are wholly unfair. It gives massive majorities to a party that has won only a third of the vote. It gives enormous power to parties to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats. Indeed, this is such an antiquated system that even we in "provincial" Wales have chosen a far more sensible option for our National Assembly! The FPTP system deepens the gulf between the political class and the people into a chasm. In reality, people have a very narrow choice when voting. About two out of every three Westminster seats are safe. Most MPs know that, even if there were a political landslide such as those of 1945, 1983 or 1997, their seats are safe.

The disconnection of the political culture of the Westminster village, coupled with a system that is less than transparent, led MPs to adopt their own standards in their rarefied world. Creating a position so cut off from the people's wrath has created a bunch of navel-gazers preoccupied with their own interests.

The important and exciting thing about a voting system is what it does. Interesting the expenses scandal has certainly been, illustrating the morals of moats and mortgages, but do we really want a voting system that encourages such a situation? The European elections have illustrated some of the different responses to the furore. These include anger (votes for the BNP) and apathy (lower turnout, meaning votes for the BNP were translated into seats). And, given that this is a fundamental problem with the system which applies equally to all the main parties, calls for a general election to replace Tweedledum with Tweedledee merely lead us back to where we started.

Instead of understandable but fruitless anger or apathy, reform offers a real alternative. Electoral reform, by changing the rules on how we elect our MPs and holding them properly to account, offers an escape for both politicians and the public from the dark cloud which hangs over British politics at present. …