Democracy in the UK (and other First Past the Post (FPTP) countries) is in a terrible state.
How can any government claim that 21% of the registered electors votes is enough of a mandate to rule? Especially when you realise how the low registration of the electorate puts the percentage who support this government much lower than even that derisory figure.
In my debate with Martin Keegan over this; he has asked the question 'how is proportionality more important than constituency accountability?'. I felt to do this massive question justice, it would be better to start a new post rather than leave my answer in the comments.
Martin feels that a change to the Alternative Vote (AV) would be enough to solve the democratic deficit, whereas I feel only a truly proportional system will do the job.
"Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom should be seen as a referendum on the performance of sitting MPs, not merely as a snapshot nationwide opinion poll determining party voting weights for the next Parliament. The electoral system affects the degree to which voters may hold their representatives to account for their actions in the previous Parliament; changes which would diminish this accountability mechanism should be resisted."
This is a fine sounding statement but it assumes that FPTP is actually any good in terms of this accountability mechanism. The following suggests it is not;
Taken from ERS general election report.
68% of the electorate didn't vote for their MP.
78% of the electorate didn't vote Labour.
81% of the electorate didn't vote Conservative.
87% of the electorate didn't vote Lib Dem.
Looking at the the least supported MP;
82% of George Galloway's constituents didn't vote for him.
Even the most supported MP had;
54% of Gerry Adam's constituents whom didn't vote for him.
According to MORI, "only 41% of the public can name their MP"
If your MP decides to go against the wishes of his constituents, they can contact him and say, "Hi, your majority at the last election was 2000; we, the undersigned 1001 who voted for you last time will vote against your party next time unless you buck the whip on this issue we care about." The easier it is to do this, the more likely the behaviour of an MP will reflect the wishes of constituents.
The problem with this is it only applies to the 40 or so seats out of 646 where MPs have a majority this small. For the other 80% of the electorate there is virtually no accountability. In fact I could absolutely predict the results of at least 3/4 of the seats at the next general election in 2009/10 and no bookie in the country would take a bet on any of them, such a dead cert it would be. Call that accountability?
This whole debate with Martin started around his mentioning of John Maples Parliamentary Constituencies Equalisaton Bill.
The following stats are taken from this ERS report.
The ERS has the following to say on the subject of boundaries;
"The boundary changes do not justify the hopes placed in
them by some optimistic Conservatives.
The estimated effect would be to increase the
number of Conservative MPs by around 7."
In 1970 when the Conservatives won, the electoral bias was much less despite Tory seats being 10,278 bigger on average than Labour, in 2005 it was 6,078 but the overall bias was much greater.
The costs of equalising boundaries would be massively detrimental to the accountability of the system. To equalise boundaries would require the following;
Very frequent reviews: probably before each general election. The disruption this caused was the reason the reviews were lengthened in the first place.
Knock-on disruption to innocent seats: for example changing the boundaries for St Ives would affect as far away as Devon.
More artificial seats: constituencies that have no link to administrative or geographical boundaries would be much more common.
More complex review process: ignoring natural boundaries makes administration and decision making more difficult and controversial to agree.
Risks of more gerrymandering: In the US, this is off to an art form, with parties employing computer programs to design boundaries that favour them the most.
The main reasons for bias are actually;
Differential turnout: Turnout in urban Labour seats is lower than rural Tory seats.
Inefficient Vote Distribution: Labour voters are clustered more effectively, maximising their number of seats.
These issues can only be addressed by a move to proportionality. When Martin argues that accountability is damaged by PR, he is really referring to closed list PR. Open List PR and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) maintain direct accountability. In fact compared to the vast majority of safe seats we get under FPTP, these systems actually improve MP accountability.
As well as this, Open List PR completely removes the dangers of gerrymandering, while STV reduces the possibilities.
While I support AV as a first step, it's lack of proportionality would still mean negative campaigning is too attractive and the disincentive to vote in safe seats would remain.
In Australia, they have tried to get around the low turnout associated with plurality systems like FPTP and AV by introducing compulsory voting. The problem with this for me is it is very difficult to administer fines and it acts as a further disincentive to register to vote.
A much better way to address low turnout would be incentive voting. This is where we have a financial incentive to compensate people for the expenses of voting. This would have the advantage of encouraging poorer people to register as well as vote, these are the people who turn-out least at the moment. It would also avoid the problems of compulsion, so is better from a libertarian point of view.