Why the UK needs PR
The UK continues to stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of Europe – no, not just because we have left the EU, but because we are the only democratic nation on the continent that still uses the undemocratic simple plurality, also known as ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) electoral system. On the world stage, this places us alongside major powers like the US, Canada, and Brazil. But if our country is bold enough to withdraw from the largest trading bloc in the world, then I say it is time to go all in, and finally lay FPTP to its long overdue rest.
The movement for electoral reform in the UK has, regrettably, little to show for its hard efforts at democratising our elections. A beacon of hope came in November 1997, when Tony Blair followed up on his manifesto’s commitment to a referendum on electoral reform by the appointment of the Jenkins Commission to find an alternative to FPTP. The nail in that coffin, however, came not from Conservative opposition, but from his own MPs. Having won a staggering majority that year, owing largely to the disproportionate effects of FPTP, Labour became reluctant to give up such parliamentary hegemony, and became just as addicted to the unfair system as the Tories before them had. The 2005 election proved Labour MPs hostile to reform right: a deeply unpopular Blair was returned to power with a slashed majority, but one that was still almost as comfortable as the Conservatives’ today, despite only finishing 3 percentage points above Michael Howard’s Tories.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the only serious appetite for electoral reform to date has come from smaller parties, notably the Liberal Democrats, who haven’t had the same chance to hoard their power. But the effects of FPTP are getting worse: the 2017 election saw the Conservatives cling to power with 49% of seats in the House of Commons, despite winning only 42.3% of the vote. 2019 saw the disparity between votes and seats get even larger: the Conservatives upped their seat tally to an impressive 56% of MPs, even though their national vote share rose only by 1.2% from 2017. The new-look Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer needs to commit itself to electoral reform and stand up for democracy. This may tempt some Greens and Lib Dems toward the party as well. But there are a few myths and scare stories about the consequences of PR that have to be tackled head-on.
1. ‘PR leads to unstable government’
One of the major and most effective scare stories about PR is that it produces large, multiparty coalitions which tend to be highly unstable and seldom survive their full term in office. Italy, Spain and Scandinavian countries are often presented as examples of this. But while stability is an important factor in government formation, the generalisation that PR always breeds instability is simply not true. Take a look at the German government, for example, a grand coalition consisting of the two main political rivals, Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU and the left-wing SPD, whose handling of the coronavirus crisis has been nothing largely successful, with a comparatively low peak daily death rate of just 333, despite a larger population. New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern has also received universal plaudits for her exemplary containment of the pandemic. Granted, New Zealand is a small, sparsely populated island nation on the other side of the world, but her government acted promptly and efficiently to implement lockdown measures in late March while the number of cases remained low, and life there is already beginning to return to ‘normal’. The Ardern administration, however, is not a Labour majority one, but an unthinkable minimal winning coalition between Labour and the populist New Zealand First, supported in parliament by the Greens. On the other hand, the UK government, with a significant parliamentary majority, has blundered its way through the crisis, wasting valuable weeks of preparation time and been too slow to impose lockdown, meaning that, at time of writing, we now have the second worst death toll in the world, second only to Trump’s America. This emphasises how the efficiency of governments depends more upon their leaders than the electoral system.
2. ‘The public have already rejected PR’
Proponents of this argument point to the fact that the British government held a referendum on changing the electoral system to the ‘alternative vote’ (AV) in May 2011, as part of a coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. AV was roundly rejected by two-thirds of the electorate, under a woeful 42% turnout, following a disaster-class in public debate, summarised by political scientist Ian McLean as ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed’ which grimly foreshadowed an even worse plebiscite 5 years later. Without delving into the details of AV, it suffices to say that it is NOT a proportionate system, but rather a revamped FPTP which allows you to rank candidates by preference. Unlike elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the Bundestag, seats are still not awarded in proportion to the number of votes for each party, meaning that even if the public approved AV, it is unlikely that would have improved the fairness of UK general elections. In fact, a BBC analysis found that had AV been used from 1997-2005, it would have given Labour even more lopsided victories. If we’re going to have PR in our elections, it’s a case of do it properly, or don’t bother at all – the best approach in my view would be to take a leaf out of Scotland’s book and follow their system, for greater ease. However, thanks to that doomed AV referendum, the case for electoral reform in the UK has been dealt a generational setback.
So, if or when we finally catch up with the rest of the world and get PR in the UK, what could it look like? In German and Scottish parliamentary elections, voters select a constituency MP (like normal) but also wield a second vote for a party (not a candidate), for a regional or national ‘list’, and then these list seats are allocated proportionally to each party. This system has proven to be robust, fair, and without the coalitional turmoil that has unfolded in Italy and Spain. It would be fairly easy to implement since we already have the Scottish model to follow, and despite snide predictions that it would ‘confuse’ voters, I think that if the lion’s share of voters can handle a single vote, I’m confident they can handle another.
The maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ runs deep in the British psyche, but the reality is that FPTP is broke, and needs replacing.