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20 January 2011

Debating Democracy

The House of Lords debated through the night this week and yet the Bill paving the way for the voting system referendum may still not finish in time. The referendum on changing the voting system to Alternative Vote (AV) is scheduled to take place on 5 May, but following sustained pressure from Labour members in the House of Lords, the timetable may have to be revised.   

The Bill has to complete its passage through Parliament at least 10 weeks before the referendum takes place. Through a combination of objecting to the coupling of the referendum provisions with a reduction in the number of MPs, and insisting that the Bill is given sufficient scrutiny, the process is taking longer than expected. This has prompted accusations from the coalition that Labour Peers are intentionally blocking the passage of the Bill. During the coalition negotiations a referendum on the voting system was a key factor in cementing the deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. However, a reduction in the size of the House of Commons was in the Conservative manifesto, so binding these two issues together is seen by the Labour party as a decision based on political expediency.   

The proposed referendum is only the second of its kind across the whole United Kingdom following the vote in 1975 to approve continued membership of the European Union.  Unlike a General Election, or even the assembly and local elections that will certainly take place on 5 May, this vote is a chance to have a say on a specific issue.  Assuming the Bill is passed without any significant changes, the introduction of the AV system will be automatically triggered by a 'Yes' vote in the referendum, and likewise cancelled if the vote is 'No'.  

This slightly unusual democratic experience could pose challenges to how the Church responds. The Evangelical Alliance is therefore working with a range of Christian organisations to help churches engage with the vote.  This includes a debate hosted by Faithworks on 16 February and chaired by Jeremy Vine, and a resource pack that will enable Christians to think through the issue and competing arguments before casting their vote. 

At the moment, when elections to the House of Commons take place a system called First-past-the-post (FPTP) is used. This means that each voter casts their vote for one candidate in their constituency and the winner is the candidate that gets more votes than any other.  In contrast the AV system requires voters to rank as many of the listed candidates as they want. The first choices are then counted up and if one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the first preferences, they have won. If not, the second preferences for the bottom-ranked candidate are redistributed and this continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote.  

As the referendum approaches - and it may not be approaching quite as fast as initially thought - it is important to consider what Christian engagement with this vote should look like. There are two traps which it is important to avoid: either thinking that this is irrelevant and the Christian faith has nothing to say, or going to the opposite extreme and suggesting that there is only one way that Christians can vote.   

This referendum does matter, and it does matter that Christians bring their beliefs to bear on the decision that they take. The referendum asks a crucial question about how our political system operates and how we interact with it, the issue may appear esoteric, and the discussion abstract, but how we vote affects what sort of parliament and government we get out of it.   

It is important that churches are aware that the referendum is happening and are equipped to help their churches think through the issues involved.  For a lot of Christians this may not be an issue that they have given much thought to, however, others may hold very strong views. 

Across the Church there will be disagreement about who should run our country and what they should do, but that must not stop us from bringing our beliefs into the heart of the political process. There is increasing collaboration between Christians in different parties and a growing acknowledgement that it is OK to have different views. Much of this collaboration is centred around encouraging Christians to play a part in the political process, regardless of any party allegiance they may hold.  

This referendum should be no different, and as with many political issues there will be a range of opinions; from passionate advocates for change, to those who see nothing wrong with the current system. It is essentially important that Christians engage in this part of the political process, and the referendum provides the opportunity to discuss, debate, disagree, and then vote on how we will vote in the future.

For information about the Debating Democracy event on 16 February please visit: www.faithworks.info/form.asp?id=9203