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Bookmark and Share David Boyle is a nef fellow, a writer and the editor of nef‘s newspaper, Radical Economics.

“I pondered all these things,” wrote William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics.  Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.

When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result.  It’s confusing, but that is how it works.

This is one of those paradoxical moments, because we are about to see the Conservatives support electoral reform in the Commons, if not outright PR.  The political shift is not yet complete, and it certainly won’t be embraced by all 306, but it has begun.

A quick race through political history shows that this isn’t actually very unusual.  It was Conservatives who extended the franchise in 1867, who reformed factories and extended free education.  It was the Tories who made Ireland independent.

Not because they really had much taste for it, but because of something else.  When Conservatives realise that radical reform is inevitable, then – in the end – they prefer to do it themselves.

In the case of PR, the alternative is that Labour will do it, when they next claw their way to power.  Then we risk Labour-style PR, with list systems that leave the party machines in control.

It is the historic destiny of the Conservative Party to introduce PR a different way, setting Britain on the path towards proportional representation in a way that retains that link between MPs and their constituencies.  The debate is about Alternative Vote now, but that is now so far from the Irish system of single transferable vote – giving the maximum amount of choice to the voters, and keeping van all-important constituency link.

That will mean bigger, multi-member constituencies.  But then, that is what Britain used to have.  It is a potential Conservative compromise.

What we are all learning this month is that strong, decisive and effective government isn’t quite what Conservatives thought it was.  In the end, giving absolute power to a minority isn’t either stable or decisive.

When we face the kind of problems that now face Britain – loss of confidence in the markets, the urgent need to cut the deficit – then minority power doesn’t work.  It isn’t stable and it can’t unite the nation.  The only thing that will work, and give stability, is government that is backed by a majority.  That applies now, but it will apply in the future too.

History suggests that this is the moment when enough Conservatives realise that, and grasp the opportunity to give power back to the voters.  In the heat of the moment, they agreed to back AV, but the logic suggests that many of them will go further.

Watch this space. They will wriggle, but in the end they will back PR.

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This letter appeared today in The Times

Sir,

David Cameron defends the first-past-the-post system as he claims that it allows for voters to throw out a government (interview, April 22). However, our current electoral system denies this choice to the majority of voters. Voters can only instigate a change in government by returning a new MP and thereby influencing the balance of power in Westminster.

Yet more than 60 per cent of seats are so safe that it is all but impossible for them to change hands. Only voters in marginal seats can exert their full democratic power and all the main political parties know this. Politicians therefore spend their time crafting policies and soundbites for the swing voters in “key marginals”. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering what happened to the idea of “one person, one vote”. As the two-party system breaks down, growing numbers of electors grasp how the current system robs them of their democratic rights by serving only the vested interests of career politicians, suppressing the plurality of political viewpoints and breeding disengagement.

We must create a fairer and more representative way of electing our future governments.

Nic Marks, nef (the new economics foundation)

Professor Joni Lovenduski, Birkbeck College

Dr Ricardo Blaug, University of Leeds

Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society

Pam Giddy, Director, Power 2010

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, Democratic Audit

Stuart Weir, Associate Director, Democratic Audit

Peter Facey, Director, Unlock Democracy

Anthony Barnett, Founder, openDemocracy

Gavin Hayes, General Secretary, Compass

Jonathan Bartley, Co-Director, Ekklesia

Will Straw, editor, Left Foot Forward

Sunny Hundal, editor, Liberal Conspiracy

Bookmark and ShareNic Marks is a nef fellow and founder of the Centre for Well-being

I went to vote at the last general election with a heavy heart. I knew full well that my vote wouldn’t really count towards the result as I live in a safe seat.  Straight after voting I felt really angry about the whole system and while out walking my dog the idea came to me that I must be able to work out how much my vote didn’t count. Make a statistician angry and he’ll fight back with numbers.

To measure exactly how our system wastes so many people’s votes, I created the Voter Power Index. It’s based on the two main factors that determine how much or little power voters have.  The first is how marginal the constituency you happen to live in is: more marginality equals more power. The second is how many registered voters there are: fewer voters means each individual vote counts more.   The problem was how to estimate exactly how much power you have in a particular constituency.  I decided that if I looked at as many elections as possible I would be able to figure out what was the probability of a seat changing hands for different levels of marginality.  By creating a probabilistic model I could then estimate this probability for every constituency and hence calculate the Voter Power Index.

I must admit that when I first calculated the VPI, even I was staggered just how much most people’s votes don’t count.  It is clear that our current system is hugely inefficient at translating the will of the people into the result of a general election.  In fact the VPI allows us to put a number on the level of this inefficiency – the current system is only 25% efficient – whereas some sort of proportional representation system would approach 100% efficiency (for example the 2004 European Elections were about 96% efficient).

Not only is the system inefficient it is also chronically unjust. Voter Power is hugely unevenly distributed in the UK, with the most powerful 20% of voters having over 33 times more power than the least 20%.  Note that this is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK. Even before the redistribution through taxes and benefits – the richest 20 per cent of households ‘only’ earn 15 times as much as the poorest. After redistribution this inequity factor is reduced to under 4 times.

This year, as we approach another election, it’s more important than ever that ever that the scandal of our wasteful, unfair electoral system is exposed. That’s why it’s great that web developer Martin Petts has created a site that lets everyone quickly find out how much their vote is really worth.

The Voter Power Index shows that first past the post is profoundly undemocratic. It gives considerably more power to some voters than others. It betrays the fundamental principle of democracy:  one person one vote.  It is high time we changed the whole rotten system.

nef supports campaigns for democratic reform. Check out Power 2010 and the Electoral Reform Society.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.
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