As Westminster struggles with party splits, electoral reform is back in the debate

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 26th February 2019

You don’t have to listen hard to hear Westminster’s party system creaking and crumbling. This past two weeks has drawn back the curtain on an undeniable reality: the structures underpinning Parliament’s politics are falling apart.

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Despite all the unrest and unease, few are talking about how to improve the situation. That is now changing. In the Sunday Times Darren Hughes argued that this goes beyond The Independent Group: Brexit has revealed what is an impossible situation.

“We have just two huge camps in the UK that try to represent everyone but can’t. It should be clear to both parties that a new constitutional settlement is needed,” he says.

The debate has now opened up for change. In the Times on Tuesday, Hugo Rifkind writes the latest party fissures reflect the need for a fairer voting system:

“Where do we mere voters feature in any of this? All parties may be coalitions, but official coalitions are at least formed between rivals we’ve had a chance to vote for. Not these ones. Voters have no way of boosting the Labour centre if their Labour candidate is on the left, or indeed no way of boosting the European Research Group if their Tory candidate is a Remainer. You take what you’re given, or you vote for another party. Which, of course, won’t particularly care about your reasons, either. This democratic deficit is not new but it does of late feel particularly egregious.

Rifkind goes on to cite ERS research showing Theresa May could have won an absolute majority in the 2017 election with just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies, and that 68 per cent of all votes cast made no difference to the outcome.

“Statistics like this should open your eyes to the power that targeted and often covert political advertising could have in a system where seats can be comfortably won on less than half the vote. First-past-the-post is ripe for being manipulated, jemmied open and flipped, while the long tail of a disempowered, ignored majority thrashes around in dismay,” he writes.

On Democratic Audit, Jack Bridgewater argues: “[The] two-party system discourages fluidity of ideology, and legitimises binary decision-making. This enables the two main parties to clash in a partisan manner that is unrepresentative of a diverse country and makes complex issues such as leaving the European Union more difficult to resolve.”

And in the New Statesman, Mark Thompson points out that the “winner takes all” mentality of First Past the Post has ‘supercharged Brexit’s toxicity’. When you have a voting system premised on two warring camps, of course the debate is going to be hostile.

Voters have had enough.  New polling by YouGov  shows 82% say “British politics is working poorly at present”. Just 9% say it’s working ‘well’.

But how do we improve it?

  • 73% say “Parties and politicians trying harder to work together and reach compromise” would make British politics work better
  • 59% say “A different type of people becoming MPs”
  • 58% say “The public becoming more politically engaged”
  • 57% say “Parties and politicians trying harder to stay true to their core beliefs”
  • 47% say “New leadership of the existing parties”
  • 45% say “The public to become more tolerant of those with different political views”
  • And for the only concrete policy proposal, 38% say “A different electoral system from First Past the Post.”

The four most popular suggestions for improving the situation in this list are outcomes of the political system. To achieve these, you need to change the system and changing the electoral system – the only concrete proposal in this list, will certainly help get you to the other desired outcomes.

2017 marked the third time in a row that First Past the Post failed to do what it says on the tin: i.e. to produce ‘strong and stable’ governments. And now it seems the glue of party loyalty that used to hold the political structure of ‘broad churches’ together is coming unstuck.

Old arguments against change – from ‘instability’ to the ‘risk’ of kingmakers – no longer apply, if indeed they ever did. What’s clear is that if the rot isn’t dealt with, Westminster will only become more skewed, while faith in our institutions continues to decline.

It is now time for Westminster to catch up with the nations of the UK (and most of the democratic world) by adopting a more proportional system where seats match votes – and where Parliament genuinely reflects how the public wish to express themselves.

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