In a modern democracy, the electoral system has one role. To convert votes to seats. If a system cannot perform this task, then it’s not fit for purpose – any other supposed benefits are irrelevant. The First Past the Post system doesn’t even come close.
Why we need PR
Our system has not become broken. That would imply that at some point it had worked. It has never worked. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act in 1928 completed the progress toward universal adult (over 21) suffrage. The General Election of the very next year gave Labour the most seats despite the Tories gaining more votes, and rewarded the 23% of the electorate who voted for Lloyd George’s Liberal Party with fewer than 10% of the seats.
In three attempts, Churchill could only ‘defeat’ Attlee in an election because our ridiculous system awarded his Conservative Party a Parliamentary majority despite polling a quarter of a million fewer votes than Attlee’s Labour in the 1951 election. These are some of the worst instances but in every election in the supposedly democratic era, the result has been twisted by our undemocratic system.
In every UK general election, most people vote for a candidate that loses. In most general elections, most people vote for a party that has no role in the government formed after the election. Votes are not of equal weight – in 2017 for example, the Conservatives won one seat in Parliament for every 42 thousand votes, but Labour needed 49 thousand votes to win each seat and the Greens over half a million voters per seat.
The proliferation of tactical voting websites in 2017 and now in 2019 are symptoms of this failure. We should all be able to vote for the party we support and to know that our vote will count for just as much as anyone else’s – otherwise what’s the point of having one vote each?
How to implement PR
The ideal PR system was proposed by the Hansard Society in the 1970s. It meets the requirement of transferring votes into seats, it maintains – strengthens even – local representation, it gives no more power to party bureaucracies than the current system, it renders gerrymandering pointless and allows constituency borders to be drawn along genuine community lines without any danger of political gain for anyone. It maintains our system’s accommodation of independent candidates, it’s simple to use and understand…and it’s democratic!
So how does it work?
Well, we run the election exactly as we currently do, with everyone voting for a local candidate, and the winner gaining a seat in Parliament to represent the constituency. So far so familiar. Next, the House of Commons is topped up until the proportion of MPs for each party represents the proportion of votes for each party. The extra MPs for each party come from that party’s closest losing candidates. That’s it.
This astoundingly simple system provides numerous benefits. It’s democratic for a start, which should be enough on its own. It renders constituency boundaries politically irrelevant, so we can go back to having them drawn with reference to actual communities, instead of twisted for party advantage. (It’s important to realise, though, that the problem with the current system is not where the boundaries are drawn or that constituencies are not of equal size. Fixing either or both of those issues won’t make the system democratic). Perhaps its greatest asset – after the fact that it actually performs the function required of a democratic electoral system – is that it provides us with a number of MPs in addition to the one-per-constituency we are used to under the current system. These ‘spare’ MPs can be used to improve the representational role of MPs. It might be that a spare MP on the government benches assists with local duties for the otherwise engaged PM, or other cabinet members, whose constituents get a pretty raw deal in terms of local representation under the present system. Opposition parties could make similar arrangements to cover constituency duties for their senior MPs. Other MPs might be used to provide an additional layer of representation for voters saddled with an MP of a different political persuasion to their own. A spare Labour MP might give Labour voters in the Home Counties, for example, a sympathetic representative – in addition to the endless stream of Tory MPs who are part of the furniture at the local golf and country club. Similarly, a spare Tory MP might be assigned to represent the dozen or so people in Liverpool who still buy The Sun and are consequently too embarrassed to take their grievances to their sitting Labour MP.
For years people have argued that a problem with PR is that it tends to produce coalitions. But that’s because PR reflects the composition of the electorate – if the political composition of the electorate is such that no one party has the support of a majority of voters, then any democratic system will throw up a parliament from which a coalition is required to govern. But there’s also a strong case to argue that coalitions are a far superior way to go about governing a country. Whether you’re a fan of Thatcherism or not, the facts are that it produced a fundamental shift in the politics of the country, catapulting the Overton window so far to the right that a generation later the views of Mark Francois are considered in some quarters to be acceptable. Now if that had happened on the back of 55 or 60 percent of the electorate, that would be bad enough, but all of that – and all of the insidious ways in which our political culture has been damaged by those years – all of that happened with no more than 43.9% support from voters – 33% of the electorate. Under PR there would have been no Thatcherism,
“But PR allows extremist parties to gain a foothold”. The growth of UKIP and its transmogrification into the Brexit Party PLC pretty much pulls the rug out from under that one, since it’s all happened under our current FPP system.
AV & STV
There will be calls too for various types of multiple-preference vote systems, AV or STV. Some such systems have their merits, but these address a different problem. Multiple preference systems address the issue that people’s policy positions don’t necessarily align to a particular party programme. This is a desirable aim but a different one to achieving proportionality – and one which can be pursued once we’ve managed to get votes of equal weight.
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