Why 35.3% of the votes equals 55.1% of the seats

As we know, the general election saw New Labour returned to office on a much reduced, but still substantial, majority of 66 seats (assuming that the Staffordshire South constituency, where the contest was postponed until June due to a candidate's death, stays Conservative). However, it did so with the lowest proportion of the popular vote that any winning party has achieved since universal adult suffrage was introduced. Labour's third-term 'mandate' was won with only 35.3% of the vote across the UK as a whole. Despite a 5.4% haemorrhaging in its support - even more severe in the marginal constituencies - this was sufficient to secure 356 MPs in the new House of Commons, some 55.1% of the total. Seven out of every eight Labour defectors transferred their support to the Liberal Democrats, whose vote went up to 22.0%. However, this only resulted in a small increase in the Lib Dems' parliamentary representation, which now stands at 62 seats (just 9.6%). The Tories took most of the constituencies that changed hands even though their support, at 32.4%, barely increased at all. They ended up with 197 MPs (30.5%), to which they can expect to add one more when the Staffordshire South by-election is held next month. The discrepancy between the political parties' vote share and their representation in parliament, combined with widespread public disillusionment with the Blair administration, has increased the profile of those campaigning for reform of the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP), which made such an outcome possible. On May 10, Make My Vote Count (www.makemyvotecount.org.uk) - an umbrella coalition bringing together groups such as Charter 88, the Electoral Reform Society, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, the Christian Socialist Movement and the former Eurocommunists of the New Politics Network - led a small protest to Downing Street wearing gags to symbolise the many voters who find themselves unrepresented as a consequence of FPTP. This was timed to coincide with the front-page launch of a campaign for proportional representation in The Independent. Although those leading the campaign at present are largely middle class in orientation and many of the arguments they put forward are aimed at appealing to a bourgeois liberal agenda, the democratic flaws of FPTP ought also to be a concern for communists and the working class movement as a whole. Not only does it lead to some people's votes effectively being worth many times more than other people's, but it has distorted electoral campaigning to such a degree that the three larger political parties focus their attention almost exclusively on appealing to 800,000 wavering voters in marginal constituencies - the "people who matter", as Tory leader Michael Howard described them. Unless you happen to live in one of those constituencies and fit the demographic profile the marketing experts deign to make you worth contacting, there seems little purpose in turning out to vote, as the vast majority of parliamentary seats are considered 'safe' for one party or another. This state of affairs, as much as the fact that there is little serious difference between the programmes of the mainstream parties, may be a significant contributor to the lower turnouts seen in the UK's last two general elections. Blair himself flirted with the idea of electoral reform at a time when it appeared that the New Labour project might benefit from hooking up with the Liberal Democrats, then led by Paddy Ashdown, in order to create a 'progressive coalition' that could prevent Labour's left wing from disrupting his 'modernisation' agenda. Indeed, Labour's 1997 manifesto went so far as to promise: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system. An independent commission on voting will ... recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system." However, the unprecedented scale of Labour's landslide in the general election that year soon put paid to any notions that Blair was serious about this pledge. An independent commission, chaired by Roy Jenkins, was established and recommended the adoption of a hybrid electoral system it named 'AV-plus', but the commission's report has been ignored ever since. PR systems have been used for electing the devolved Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London assembly, but the promised referendum for Westminster has not materialised. This follows the pattern of several previous governments which talked about changing the voting system - until they were elected by that very system and conveniently found themselves with other priorities to attend to. Nevertheless, there is only so much further that Labour's support can drop before its parliamentary majority is threatened, so it is possible that the prospect of losing office at the next general election may prompt the government to revive its interest in reforming the system, especially if the opinion polls become even less favourable during the next few years. As communists, we must consider this issue from a class perspective and how any change advances the interests of the working class. FPTP leaves the left barely represented in parliament and it places major obstacles in the way of that situation changing. Electors of all persuasions are discouraged from voting for the candidates they really want because, even if they are lucky enough to have one on the ballot paper in their constituency, they are forced to consider whether or not it will a 'wasted vote'. Consequently, we see Labour supporters voting Lib Dem to keep out the Tories, Lib Dems voting Tory to keep out Labour, and so on, and all this based on personal calculations about who is most likely to be best placed to prevent the election of their least favourite candidate. The same dilemma is faced by those who support leftwing parties - do they vote for what they believe and risk 'splitting the progressive vote' or should they stick with Labour in order to prevent the Conservatives from winning. In most constituencies, of course, they are spared the choice because the £500 deposit required to contest a parliamentary seat (£323,000 to stand in all 646, and that excludes the other costs associated with campaigning) means that some cannot afford the luxury of democracy because they have not got a wealthy backer. Clearly, an electoral system that avoids the psychological pressures of tactical voting and removes the concept of 'wasted votes' has got to be in the interests of the working class. We are not so naive as to believe that socialism can be achieved through parliamentary means (though we should not discount the possibility that electoral success could be a significant milestone on the way to a working class revolution), but a proportional system that enables people to vote in accordance with their actual politics is an objective that communists must support. It would also enable the actual balance of class forces to be more accurately reflected. However, it seems unlikely that New Labour will go out of its way to assist the development of the revolutionary left even if electoral reform does reach its agenda during the next four years. These are many different non-FPTP electoral systems, but only four are likely to be in the running: Alternative vote This is a preferential system which retains the single-member constituencies of FPTP, but requires electors to number the candidates in their order of preference (first, second, third, etc). A candidate must achieve at least 50% of the votes in order to be elected. If no-one reaches that quota, the candidates with fewest votes are successively eliminated and their supporters' later preferences transferred to other candidates until one reaches the magic number. It is not a proportional system, although it is often incorrectly described as such in the media. Labour cabinet member Peter Hain is an advocate of the alternative vote and it is not hard to see why - Labour's majority would have been even larger if AV had been used on May 5 and the Tories would have lost many seats to the Lib Dems (simulation run using UK-Elect 6.0 software). There is little chance that leftwing parties could win seats under AV, except for the occasional Bethnal Green and Bow-type aberration, although it is possible that the desire to attract socialists' second-preference votes would influence the agendas of Labour candidates. Additional member system This is the system used to elect the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London assembly. The majority of seats are elected in single-member constituencies FPTP-style, but electors have a second vote for a party list under which 'top-up' seats are distributed to make the overall outcome roughly proportional to the parties' share of the poll. The greater the number of additional seats, the more proportional the result. The Scottish Socialist Party has achieved representation in the Scottish parliament through the AMS, but the five percent minimum threshold likely to be imposed if this system was adopted for the House of Commons would almost certainly keep out leftwing parties in England under their present state of sectarian disarray. Which is, of course, precisely the objective. AV-plus This is the system proposed by the Jenkins commission and it is essentially a hybrid of AV and AMS. However, under AV-plus, the share of top-up seats would be limited to around 15%-20% of the total and these would be distributed on a sub-regional, county or city-wide basis, meaning that the degree of proportionality would be strictly limited. In effect, every five or six seats would have an added corrective of just one party list member. AV-plus would help ensure that no area was represented solely by MPs from a single political party, but no parties outside the big three would get a look-in. Single transferable vote STV is used in the Republic of Ireland and for local and assembly elections in Northern Ireland. It is also being introduced for local government in Scotland from 2007. Under STV, the country would be divided into multi-member constituencies, usually between three and six MPs, and electors vote preferentially. A quota, which depends on the number of seats up for grabs in each constituency, must be reached to gain election. In practice, the quota is usually around 15%-20% of the vote. Whilst that may seem a higher hurdle than the five percent required under AMS, this quota operates on a constituency-by-constituency basis and a more effective, united leftwing party would be likely to win seats under this system. STV avoids the danger of similar candidates cancelling each other out as, for example, a Socialist Labour Party supporter could put, say, Respect as their second preference and have their vote transferred to the other should their first choice prove particularly unpopular. Another important factor in favour of STV from a communist perspective is the potential it offers for our class to influence the Labour Party. Judging by the experience in Ireland, the larger parties usually nominate one more candidate than they expect to win in an STV constituency. It is in their interest to put up individuals representing different wings of the party in order to maximise their potential support and pick up second and third preferences from their rivals. This would enable campaigns such as the CPGB's advocacy of support only for working class, anti-war/occupation candidates to have maximum effect, encouraging Labour politicians to emphasise their working class, anti-militarist credentials at the expense of other candidates within their own party. The class line would be easier to draw under STV and the ability of left-leaning Labourites to defy their leadership would increase. However, whilst any of the above electoral systems would be an improvement upon FPTP, and each would present their own opportunities for class politics, communists do not restrict their democratic demands simply to reform of the voting system. It is of little use having proportional representation if the will of the majority can be stifled by an unelected second chamber or ignored by an executive using the royal prerogative vested in it by the UK constitutional monarchy system. And no matter how proportional the parties' distribution of seats may be, a parliament composed of MPs on salaries and expenses many times that enjoyed by those they represent cannot expect to remain in touch with the aspirations and conditions of working class people. As communists, we demand that democracy should prevail in all spheres of life, from the workplace to the legislature, to the executive. In terms of the constitution that means PR, recallable representatives, abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber, replacement of the standing army with a people's militia, etc l Steve Cooke