I was 18 in 1969, when the voting age in the UK was lowered from 21. In those days, Liberals (not LibDems) were as rare as unicorns and the first past the post system of one person, one vote and first past the post made some sense. We had what I remember Quintin Hogg (later to become Lord Chancellor) remarking upon as a revolving dictatorship as we alternated between Labour and Conservative governments.
Today there is potentially a lot more choice on offer. Excluding the likes of the Monster Raving Loonies and other outlying gatherers of protest votes, we have not only Conservative and Labour parties but also LibDems (significant enough to have formed part of a five-year coalition government), Greens (much more significant in other parts of Europe) and UKIP (peculiar to the UK, but with a groundswell of popular support).
Support for UKIP has been evident at by-elections – as so often happens during the course of an administration. That support will most likely fade away at General Election time, as it will for other minority parties. Why is that, and is it a good thing?
What is uppermost in our minds right now is “who will be our next Prime Minister?”, so that in some ways this process comes to look like a presidential election. I’m sure I’m not alone in wrestling with the question of whether to vote for the local candidate of a) the party whose principles and policies are best aligned with my own views and beliefs or b) the lesser of two evils, being the only two parties that can form a government or at least dominate a coalition.
If I choose the former and enough others do likewise, I may have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve voted correctly by my own lights but face the dismay of seeing a candidate elected whose policies are anathema to me.
If we had a Single Transferable Vote (STV, one of the commonest and least contentious forms of Proportional Representation or PR) then I could both have my cake and eat it. My vote would go first to the minority candidate who best reflects my views. If – unexpectedly – enough others were with me then that candidate may even possibly win. However, if he or she were to be eliminated in the early rounds of counting then my vote would still be able to help keep out the parties that – for me – have entirely the wrong political complexion.
Other countries manage this perfectly well. Even in the UK, professional bodies to which I belong elect their committees using STV under the beady eye of the Electoral Reform Society. It seems to work well and brings with it little to argue about in terms of added complexity or inefficiency in counting. If there are people who find it too complex to cope with then perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and to hell with universal suffrage.
What we would learn under STV is exactly how many people felt most strongly in favour of each candidate. The end result would be seen to be a compromise, but what’s wrong with that? The minority parties would learn how effective their canvassing had been. The main parties would learn just how many of their traditional followers they were at risk of losing, and to whom. This seems to me to be much more transparent, and democratic, than a system where people find themselves having to hide their true principles in order to try to avoid a worst case outcome.
Of course the real reason we don’t get STV is because, on balance, it’s clear that the potential benefits are much more likely to accrue to the minority parties… who have little influence under the current system. How fair is that, and how democratic?