[Marxism] Class analysis of Electoral reform from the Lib Dems
jack.cade at btinternet.com
Mon May 23 05:36:05 MDT 2005
Some votes are more equal than others
Chris Huhne Our first-past-the-post electoral system hands power
to the wealthy and denies it to the poor
There is an economic and social dimension to the case for
electoral reform that progressives often ignore. The extension of
the franchise brought in its wake not just political rights but
economic and social advance. The vote was the lever for pensions
and trade union rights in the Liberal government of 1906 and then
for the health service and social security in the Labour
government of 1945.
Progressives should ask why the vote no longer provides the
dispossessed with the same power. An important part of the
explanation is that our electoral system deprives Britain's
underclass of clout.
Living mainly in safe Labour constituencies, their vote is not
courted by direct mailshots from Lynton Crosby or Labour HQ.
Their turnout is particularly low. The entire political effort,
in the winner-takes-all electoral system, is directed at the
swing voters of middle England in marginal seats like Harlow or
St Albans. Affluent middle England delivers political power, and
attracts political effort.
On one calculation, fewer than a million voters - 2% of the
electorate - form the new political battleground and shape the
political agenda. Everyone's vote is no longer of equal value to
The reason for the change since the great campaigns of 1905-6 and
1945 is simple: when working-class people formed a large majority
of the electorate, their concerns were those of any political
party that wanted majority support. Any social advance that
proved popular was rapidly accepted by all parties; even the most
reactionary Conservative party did not dare roll back new
economic and social rights.
But these days the excluded are a minority of an increasingly
affluent society whose concerns have moved on. Our electoral
system is excellent at encapsulating the desires of the average
voter, but not those of minorities. As the poor have become a
minority, our electoral system under-represents them as surely as
it under-represents black or gay people. It has become a threat
to social cohesion.
Of course, any radical party will not ignore the dispossessed
entirely, and the government has some initiatives to its credit.
But it is swimming against the tide, because there is so little
political reward in meeting the needs of the excluded.
Our electoral system is the most disproportional in Europe, and
thus the most distorting in its failure to represent all the
interests of society in our legislature. One of the results is
our exceptional - and, on some measures, growing - inequality.
Within the EU there are surveys of income inequality in 22 of the
25 member states. Of those 22, Britain is the least equal society
with the exception of two much poorer societies, Portugal and
Estonia, as measured by the Gini index on behalf of the World
Bank. The bottom 20% of Britain's population has an income of
6.1% of the total, the second lowest share in the EU.
Labour answers this case with the assertion that the price of
giving everyone votes of equal value would be to create a
centrist "hinge" party: the Liberal Democrats would wield unusual
and disproportionate power.
That misunderstands the range of electoral reforms on offer.
There are many options, from slightly more propor-tional systems
like those in Ireland and Germany at one end to Israel's at the
In Ireland, for example, every interest is fairly represented in
the Dail. But parties have won a workable overall majority with a
share of the vote as low as 45.7%. Indeed, Fianna Fail has won
clear overall majorities since independence in 1921 on seven
occasions. Other systems - such as the one in Greece - explicitly
include a boost for the largest party so that it can more easily
form a majority.
The proposals for electoral reform by the 1998 Jenkins commission
combine the Australian system of the alternative vote with a
small top-up to ensure greater proportionality. Using this
system, the best guess is that a party would be able to secure a
majority in the Commons with about 44% of the vote.
In all these cases the value of each person's vote would become
more equal, thus making our democracy more representative of all
its interests while preserving the capacity for a decisive
Anyone who seeks to defend the present system has to argue for
the legitimacy of a government elected with just 36% of the vote
and a fifth of the electorate. Just how low a share of the vote
would still be legitimate - 30%, 25%?
We need a new reform act that puts first principles back into our
democracy. Everyone deserves a vote of equal weight, wherever
they live. While so many people have second-class votes that do
not count towards any result, millions are deprived of the means
to make their voice heard. Any progressive party that prizes
fairness to all our citizens must put fair voting at the heart of
its programme, because economic and social fairness follow from
Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh.
huhnec at parliament.uk
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