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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
nef has long argued that we need systematic reform of our financial system to make it work for people and the planet. So far, the Election Campaign hasn’t touched on banking or finance, which means a crucial debate on the future of our economy is not being had. You can help the cause for financial reform by asking your candidates what their party plans to do to fix the banks.
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.
And yet another group of big business chief executives have signed up to the Conservatives’ policy to reverse Labour’s proposed 1% increase in National Insurance. Should anyone really be surprised that businesses would rather not have to contribute to reducing the public deficit? No, the interesting thing about this media furore is how few alternative suggestions are being promoted by any of the major parties in the run up to the election. The tax debate remains stuck in the ‘old economics’.
Critics of Labour’s policy are right that it is a tax on labour or ‘jobs’. But what is less clear is that government ‘efficiency savings’ are not equally a tax on jobs in the public sector. Anyone who thinks public agencies can achieve the kind of cuts the Conservatives are proposing without major redundancies is living in cloud cuckoo land. And given there are proportionately many more jobs in the public sector in the poorer areas of the UK one could also argue that cutting public sector budgets is more regressive than taxing business.
But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The ‘new economics’ is about replacing taxes on what we do want – productive jobs, investment in high quality public services – with taxes on what we don’t want.
And everyone’s pretty clear on what we don’t want. We don’t want fossil-fuel intensive production or transport. We don’t want another housing boom. We don’t want massive windfall profits for energy suppliers because its been a cold winter. We don’t want huge bonuses for bankers who have made speculative short-term profits by playing with our pensions or retail deposits.
If we tax these areas we not only raise revenue to meet the budget deficit, but we also steer our economy in the right direction and provide incentives for more productive investment. A land value tax, for example, would act as automatic brake on speculative booms in the housing market and might encourage us to invest our savings in industry rather than non-productive property. A carbon tax or rationing system would incentivise investment in renewable energy schemes and encourage more sustainable consumption. A financial transaction tax (FTT) would slow down and shrink the ‘socially useless’ finance sector.
Plus, these schemes would also be progressive, a land tax stopping the widening wealth gap between home owners and tenants, a carbon tax redistributing from rich to poor in most cases (as demonstrated in the recent report by the Green Fiscal Commission) and an FTT would bring city pay back down to earth.
This is not rocket science. And its not simply a call for more ‘green taxes’, although even that seems to have dropped off the political radar. It’s a call for a taxation system that promotes ‘economic goods’ and punishes ‘economic bads’. A new economics of tax can be win-win for the economy, society and the environment as well as improving the public finances. Lets hope the party (or parties) that come in to power in May feel able to turn over a new leaf in the tax debate.
Two months from today, on May 6th, it is likely that we – the British public – will be invited to go to the election polls. Who and how many of us actually turn up is another matter. For those that do, we will be placing our vote with the (naive?) hope that the next government will do many things. Combating climate change sits at the top of my wish list. This must be an overarching theme of the work for the next parliamentary term. The significance and urgency of this task should not be under-estimated. We all know that the clock is ticking. According to analysis carried out by nef, we only have 81 months before we reach a crucial tipping point – the point at which it is no longer likely that we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change. With this in mind, how much of a priority is the issue of climate change in the current campaigns of the two main parties?
The answer, in short, is that it isn’t a priority. A quick review of the main new items listed on the Labour and Conservative websites highlights that not one reference has been made to ‘climate change’, ‘environment’ or even ‘green’ in the past week. Not one. The Labour party’s ‘energy and climate change’ page has not been updated since December, when they were canvassing for support for a deal at Copenhagen (so much for that). We see an equal paucity of interest amongst the Conservatives. Despite David Cameron claiming recently that the Conservatives are ‘the new environmental party in Britain’, the party has not released a news story on climate change and energy since early january. The Green Party, it seems, do not need to start to worry.
A low level of interest from the two main parties highlights that we have a vital role to play, as voters and activists, to move the issue up the political agenda. And now is the time to do so. We only have two months left. Write emails, wave a placard, start a campaign to get elected to parliament. Whatever it is, let’s all take action to make climate change a top priority for the election campaign and so the next government.