This is Michael Meadowcroft’s supplementary evidence of 6 January 2015 on Voter Engagement to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:
The Committee’s Report reads well and it contains many positive and constructive proposals for tackling the endemic problem of voter disengagement. However, its report as whole is undermined by its failure to grapple with a fundamental cause – the high incidence of “safe” seats under our First-Past-the-Post electoral system. This problem lies at the core of the problem and all the other practical and, in themselves, important changes, are “second order” issues.
The objective evidence is available from at least one definitive source, formerly the Nuffield General Election Study, now simply the Palgrave Macmillan publication on each recent election. In 2005, when the electoral turnout was at its lowest, the study remarks:
One possible reason why the turnout was so low once more is that voters again felt that it was obvious who would win the election. If voters’ willingness to vote (or the parties’ ability to mobilise voters) is influenced by such considerations, then we might expect to find that turnout was higher in marginal constituencies than it was elsewhere. This indeed was the case. (Page 249, The British General election of 2005, Denis Kavanagh and David Butler, 2005).
The study goes on to quantify this fact, showing that the average differential was some 5.9% but in some categories reached almost 10%.
If a Select Committee comprising Members of Parliament, elected under the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, under which some 70% of seats are “safe”, is not prepared to address the effect of safe seats on voter disengagement, then the public is likely to regard the MP members of the Committee as being motivated by self-interest to one degree or another. To feed such cynicism is to risk all the Committee’s practical proposals being undermined. This would be unfortunate.
The Committee really needs to accept that the existence of so many parliamentary seats that are “safe” for one party or another is a powerful reason for a great deal of voter disengagement. The logical consequence of such an acknowledgement is to seek a solution that will end the problem without having other disadvantages. “Proportional Representation” which seeks only to provide proportionality between political parties, and which therefore needs to increase the power of the parties, via a party list system of one type or another, is to seek a selfish outcome which makes the situation even worse when the public is already alienated by the parties’ manipulation of the electoral system.
Only a preferential voting system, such as the Single Transferable Vote, as already used in all Irish elections other than those in Northern Ireland for the Westminster Parliament, and latterly introduced successfully in Scottish local government, provides both proportionality and accountability. It also gives all sitting MPs a good opportunity to prove their electoral popularity and their potential success at the hands of the electorate. I commend this to the Committee.