Thursday, 12 November 2009

Thoughts on the electoral system

I have just been reading Winston Graham's book 'The Four Swans', the sixth book in the excellent Poldark series.

Part of this book plumbs the depths of the political scene in the mid 1790's, and it makes for fascinating reading. The utter corruption in having a few men sitting in a room to decide an election seems perverse from a modern perspective (although the selection of candidates for safe seats sometimes approaches this). Also abhorrent was the way that rich men (usually Lords) bribed and intimidated the small electorate to get their chosen men in. Rotten boroughs, a tiny electorate and the concept of selling seats to the highest bidder were all common. Such corruption makes the current expenses scandal seem almost irrelevant.

Reading this book has reminded me that, electorally, we have an incomparably better system than 200 years ago; the advantages of the current system are manifest and obvious. Good men and women have fought for change, and they are to be thanked. Enfranchisement has increased; not just to women, but to nearly everyone over 18. A vote from a poor unemployed woman counts for as much as that of a twelfth-generation lord (the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system aside).

So, although I am by nature hesitant about change, I would like to say this: the change to our electoral systems have probably been the biggest structural improvement to our country over the last two centuries. Yet I will still be cautious about other changes: some, like enfranchising prisoners, are probably right and should be done. I am more cautious about extending the vote to 16-year olds. Given the frauds that have occurred, I am downright nervous about postal voting and I am rabidly anti electronic voting. I am generally pro-FPTP and anti-PR (mainly because I believe in electing an individual and not from party lists).

On another note, the current situation in the House of Lords is abhorrent. There was an argument for removal of the hereditary peers, but the Government did not - and criminally has not in the last ten years - replaced it with a solid system. Instead, we have people being appointed into the Lords on what appears to be a free-for-all basis. At least the old hereditary system allowed for some true independents instead of yes-men who are beholden to vote for their appointees. This is where caution with change is needed - we abolished the hereditary peers with little idea of whether the replacement was going to be better. That was wrong; it was change for changes sake.

But generally, massive progress has been made, if slowly. So may I thank all the people who have fought for these changes, and I hope that future change - as there must be - are well thought out and not reactionary.

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