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Blair Under Pressure To Reform Britain's Voting System
from Union Jack June 2005

by Ed Johnson

Tony Blair's Labour Party may have won the election, but the victory came with one of the lowest shares of the popular vote ever, prompting fresh demands for an overhaul of Britain's electoral system. Even some of the winners of last month's race claim that one of the world's oldest democracies has failed to live up to its democratic principles. "Having a system where everybody feels their vote counts is critically important," said John Denham, a senior Labour Legislator. Unlike many European countries, Britain does not have proportional representation, in which legislative seats are distributed based on the overall vote breakdown. Instead, there is a single-seat system in which each district sends one lawmaker to parliament, similar to how congressional representatives are elected in the United States. The British model has seen parties that won the most votes actually lose the election, as happened in the 2000 US presidential election, when Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost to George W Bush under the electoral system.


Campaigners for reform say the system hands a disproportionately large victory to the winning party while unfairly excluding smaller or fringe parties. The election saw Blair's Labour Party return to office with 356 seats despite winning only about 35% of the vote. The Conservatives were only three percentage points behind yet won only 197 seats. The Liberal Party won just 62 seats on 22 percent of the vote. Under Britain's system, whoever wins the most votes in each district gets the seat, and the party that gets the most legislators into the 646 seat House of Commons forms the government. That makes for "wasted" votes in districts where a candidate wins in a landslide — a chronic problem for the [Conservatives] who have pockets of overwhelming support in rural areas. "The election result was really a travesty of democracy. For every person who voted Labour, two people voted for other parties and two people abstained and yet we have a majority government," said Nina Temple of the pressure group, Make Votes Count.

British flag accompanying article on improving UK democracy.


Some 100 Labour Lawmakers back a system shake-up and Blair's government says it is committed to a review — just not anytime soon. The system is currently skewed in Labour's favor, because the party's votes are spread more efficiently across the country. "There are only three major democracies in developed countries that still use 'first past the post:' the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom," said Lord Oakeshott of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third largest party which has long campaigned for proportional representation. "We think the system is broken beyond repair." The fact that candidates in a multi-candidate race don't need an absolute majority to win a seat also means that some lawmakers in last week's election won with less than 25% of support in their districts.

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