First past the post comes last?

Right. Now that I’ve (just about) caught up on the election night sleep I missed out on, I can now slowly begin the process of getting my head around the result. This could take some time, mainly because I’m not even sure the new multi-party cabinet knows what’s going on right now – let alone a poor confused ordinary voter like me…

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition has provoked a great deal of vitriol from all sides of the political spectrum, and, although I can’t say I’m particularly impressed with the idea of a government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in tandem, I intend to wait and see whether they create some tangible benefits for the country or whether they end up shooting themselves in the collective foot. I suspect the latter.

One thing is for certain, and that’s the simple fact that the collapse of the structural organisation involved in this election has had a unnecessarily negative impact on the electorate – so much so that Saturday saw a fairly large rally in Westminster, which demanded fair votes and a change to the current first past the post electoral system.

And quite rightly too. Aside from the unspeakably ridiculous result (which is silly enough, quite frankly), this election has been a farce from beginning to end. The cock-ups seemed never-ending. Problems at one, perhaps two, polling stations could be dismissed an unfortunate blip, but when the same problems kept cropping up at any number of different polling stations across the country, suspicions were naturally raised.

The lack of sufficient staff at polling stations (and, in at least one case, lack of sufficient ballot papers) seems a weak excuse at best – all polling stations should, at least theoretically, be prepared for a 100% turn-out. And the electorate should be able to vote at any time during the polling station’s opening hours; especially true for those who do not work the traditional 9-5.

If you need to buy a stamp half an hour before the Post Office is due to close, for example, you expect it still to be open – half an hour before a polling station’s closing time should still be sufficient time to allow a fair number of people to vote. It’s not rocket science, for heaven’s sake. Why not issue ballot papers to all in the queue before closing time – so that they retain their entitlement to vote – and then keep the doors open until everyone has done so?

Instead, hundreds of people appear to have been disenfranchised because polling station staff went into a flap. This is a serious issue and may well have affected some results – there can easily be a matter of only a few votes between winning or losing, particularly in an election as tight as this one. Several Americans of my acquaintance have noted that there are echoes here of the widespread disenfranchisement in parts of the US during their chaotic 2000 election (and we all know what the result of that was…).

Then there’s our complete mess of a postal voting system. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a number of friends who have had problems either applying for or receiving postal ballots, and they don’t seem to be the only ones. Again, I think suspicions should be raised by this, no matter how many times it is claimed that the postal voting system isn’t open to fraud – or distinctly dubious behaviour at the very least.

So what is to be done?

As far as reforming the physical act of voting goes, there have been calls for the introduction of some sort of electronic voting system – which, its proponents claim, would make casting your ballot quick and easy, allow for almost instant counting, and would prevent spoiled ballots (although I would prefer retaining the ability to do the latter as a form of protest, unless a ‘none of the above’ or ‘re-open nominations’ box could be introduced on the ballot). The obvious flaws in this plan are the security issues that would inevitably arise from putting such a system into practice.

But the whole electoral system quite clearly needs a complete overhaul, and I don’t mean just introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) system as a sop to those many voices now demanding proportional representation in Britain. It has to go much further than that.

The slow collapse of the first past the post electoral system is but one aspect of how broken politics has become in this county, and it is obvious that the fairer political change we so crucially need must start at the very top. Central to such political reform is a new electoral system which actually puts the electorate first, for a change.

One of the few real positives to come out out of the chaos of May 6th was the election of the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas to the Brighton Pavilion seat – becoming, in the process, Britain’s first ever Green MP. Personally, I am delighted for Caroline – one of the few politicians I have much time for – and wish her the best of luck; it is about time the British Greens had a presence at Westminster and I hope that more will eventually follow her.

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