29 March 2007

Imagine a referendum like this.

Imagine just for a moment that Labour gives the people a referendum on one of the big issues of the day
(I know it takes a lot of imagination).

But instead of a clear yes-no question they devise the following multiple choice with the results of the voting as follows.

Yes, we definitely or probably would like this to happen (35%)
No, we definitely wouldn't like this to happen (32%)
No, we probably wouldn't like this to happen (22%)
Other negative options (11%)

If the government then declared a clear mandate for the proposal and ploughed ahead, I doubt most would think this fair, yet this is precisely how we choose our government under 'first past the post'. It would be easily possible to 'win' referendums on the Euro, Road pricing, and even the Iraq War in this way. In fact 'first past the post' is even worse than this because sometimes the party second in terms of votes 'wins'. There is also the fact that most voters are unimportant to the result (because of their geographical position in the 3/4 of seats that always elect an MP from the same party) and therefore they are effectively ignored and campaigning is concentrated on the small number of voters 'that matter'. Proportional representation would make geography irrelevant and everyone's vote equal (like it should be if we truly believe in democracy).

Isn't it about time that Labour lived up to it's following manifesto commitment?

"We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system."

Perhaps if Labour belatedly kept their promise on this issue and we had governments truly elected by the people, then the cynicism and distrust of government we now experience would be repaired somewhat.


  1. What about the 40% who can't be bothered to answer the question or don't agree with any of the answers proffered!

  2. Yes the 39% or so (depending on registration levels it could be as high as 50%) who don't vote matter to. And PR is proven to increase turnout (or at least stem the trend decrease in turnout).

    For example in New Zealand, Labour has won 3 consecutive elections and increased the number of people who vote for them on every occasion. Overall turnout is well up and especially amongst the DE socio-economic groups that vote least.

  3. Neil - I agree with you on the issue of PR. It's one of my major dissapointments of this government that all the promises made on this and on a new style of less personally abusive politics and ending sleaze and dodgy funding have all been totally abandoned at the altar of clinging on to power.

    I spent the 80s and 90s voting Labour and getting Tories because I happened to live in the kind of seats where a donkey with blue rosette would get elected.

    I don't share your opinion on the outcome of the theoretical referenda however. People probably supported the Iraq war on the basis that they felt they could trust the PM and that if he said "there are things I know that I can't tell you that mean we need to do this, trust me", that was fair enough. Since then the media (and before you cry right wing conspiracy that includes the BBC, Grauniad et al) have caught him out in web of deceit, sexed up dossiers and non-existent WMDs so the answer today would probably be different. However, I think you are right about PR and that's one reason I don't want an overall majority for either main party at the next election.

  4. urko: The point I was making was that any decision on any subject can be effectively rigged under this method (including the Iraq War referendum).

    There has always been a majority who vote for parties that advocate a more redistributive tax system yet we have had regressive tax Tories in power most of the time under 'first past the post'. This is because the parties that advocate redistribution, their vote is more split.

    Specifically about the Iraq War, I have always agreed that the War was wrong, but people forget that Blair, the UK, the Labour party could not have prevented the war from going ahead.

    It comes down to a decision about backing Bush's American adminstration, which is an entirely different question with all sorts of factors to consider.

    Once you accept that the Iraq war (and consequent loss of life) is going to happen whatever decision you make, then it comes down to how much you can ameliorate the effects of the invasion and aftermath and how much influence it gives you over US policy in other areas. At the moment it doesn't look like a good decision, but I am under the impression that Blair might be vindicated in the long run with information we have yet to hear.

  5. Thanks Neil - sorry I see what you mean now (and I agree about tax - including, but not limited to, the latest budget), and please forgive me a little observation on my own pet subject - PR would (with any luck) be the death of ID cards :-)

  6. It would be close, the present scheme is flawed, but in principle the majority support ID cards.

  7. Neil, as the majority of the country support capital punishment and far tougher immigration controls, maybe PR isn't so bad afterall.

    As for your comments about redistribution of wealth is favoured by the 'majority', where is the evidence? I can't recall the last time any Government was elected with such a mandate!

  8. 57% or more regularly vote at general elections for parties with manifestos advocating redistribution.

  9. Neil, why aren't they more explicit in these claims!?! It seems to be another one of Labour's dirty little secrets!

  10. Snafu: Why do the Tories hide their tax cuts? It seems to be their dirty little secret as well. The truth is all parties try to be as vague about their policies as possible if it offends a large group of people. It is one of the ways our electoral system distorts debate.