Britain’s electoral system is certainly overdue for reform (see Anthony Barnett here and Polly Toynbee in the Guardian) but the reasons go beyond the unrepresentative governments they produce. I can’t be the only one who finds something anticlimactic and even distasteful about stepping into the polling booth, picking up a blunt pencil on a string and writing an X – the mark of the illiterate. After four years of waiting and six weeks of relentless debate, surely there should be more to sacred rite of democracy?
There certainly can be. The system in use in the Republic of Ireland, for one, gives voters a chance to use their intelligence, their wit and even their spite during those few moments behind the curtain. And it can also offer some measure of escape from the vote-for-me-or-the-other-guy-might-win kind of hostage-drama politics which have afflicted the latest British election.
How the Irish system works, in terms of turning votes into parliamentary seats, is one of those things that people who enjoy that sort of thing tend to enjoy, but it is not really something that need concern ordinary voters. All they need to know is that they can trust it -- and they do so sufficiently to have rejected all proposals that they should change.
In the polling booth, it is as easy as 1, 2, 3. The constituencies each return several members to parliament (T.D.s in Ireland), so there tend to be many candidates on the ballot, including several from each of the main parties. In principle you just number them in order of preference. As a rule of thumb, the lower the preference, the less likely it is to influence the outcome, but there have been occasions in Ireland where a number 15 on a ballot sheet helped elect someone.
Now for the fun. Imagine, for example, that you live in a large, three-seat constituency in Britain being contested, under the Irish system, by three Labour candidates: Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary; another, more junior, Blairist and a rebel who voted against the Iraq war. The Conservatives also have three: the rightwinger John Redwood; a middle-of-the-road type and the eccentric Boris Johnson. There are also three Liberal Democrats, a Green and a variety of minor candidates.
Say you are so minded, you can vote Labour without backing the war – just give your number 1 to the Labour rebel. That way, too, nobody can accuse you of letting the Tories in by the back door. Then you can back your environmental concerns (and punish Jack Straw) by giving the number 2 to the Greens. Then (number 3) a Lib Dem you like. Then, say, the other Blairist Labour candidate at 4. Then Straw, finally, at 5. After that you may have some fun: a 6 for Boris Johnson, just because he adds to the gaiety of nations. At 7, 8, 9 and 10, some other Lib Dems and harmless minor candidates. Then at 11 the dull Tory and finally, just for spite, you can refuse to give John Redwood any preference at all. Just leave his box blank: that way, even in the most extreme and unlikely of electoral eventualities, there is no possibility that you might help him win a seat.
There is art in that, and even pleasure. It would be so much better than a crude X, and it might even help to make better governments. It is democracy for literates.