Britain is changing, so should our electoral system

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 28th June 2017

So, the Conservatives and DUP have agreed a deal. Despite the two previous elections failing to secure a ‘strong and stable’ government, few saw this coming.

There’s a reason for that. Despite all evidence to the contrary, people are still locked in the mindset that these past few elections have just been anomalies. Not so.

What lies behind this shift is a much longer-term change in how people vote – away from party tribalism, class lines and who your grandparents voted for, to a more fluid situation which sees people’s voting choices changing over their lifetime. But there’s a contradiction.

Because first past the post is supposed to lead to lead to single-party government, any other outcome is treated with surprise.

And that means voters are given false pretences about walloping majorities – and no countenance for deals. Of course, the result then comes in, and – oh – they must make a deal after all.

Whilst proportional voting systems are criticised for creating small-but-powerful king-makers who strike deals behind closed doors, the picture is rather different when we look at places where some form of proportional voting is commonplace – we’re now getting the worst of both worlds: deals are having to be made, but based on skewed results (DUP won 10 MPs for under 300,000 votes, Greens won 1 MP for over 500,000).

Not only that, but they’re being made post-fact, with no transparency for the public. They are shut out of those ‘smoke-filled rooms’.

That’s not inevitable. Where power-sharing is the norm, the campaign is different, with open expectations and discussion about the partnerships that may arise. There is a maturity to it – members are involved, it’s a big part of TV debates, and out goes the shady veneer you get from panicked and shut-off brokering after polling day.

And it’s nothing new here, either. After years of power-sharing governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay (and of course built-in coalitions at Stormont), it’s odd to see such resistance at Westminster to the very idea. Labour (in 2015 and 2017) felt it had to reject the notion outright. That’s not a healthy approach or grown-up politics.

Voting guru John Curtice has long predicted there will be more parliaments where no party got more than half the seats – and indeed he was one of the few people un-shocked by the result on June 8th.

So the key question is: if we are to have more power-sharing, it’s surely better to arrive there via a system that fairly rewards parties with most support – and makes sure they are round the decision-making table – rather than one that creates bizarre electoral anomalies.

Like, for instance, the fact that 2017’s result came off the back of record tactical voting – one in five people opted for their second or even third-choice party. Is that the basis for healthy deal-making?

Despite that artificial two-party squeeze, voters have chosen not to hand over keys to No 10 to any one party. The deals which come out of the meat-grinder of First Past the Post are always going to be contested, skewed and favour geographically-condensed parties, rather than the under-represented (and geographically spread-out) Liberal Democrats, Greens or UKIP.

Working together shouldn’t be a dirty phrase. The trick is having those conversations in the open before elections – as happens in many developed democracies.

In an era of voter volatility and much more complex relations between social class, ethnicity, identity and party support, perhaps the parties should stop hoping the system will magically fall back to how it worked in the 1950s, and instead think about changing the system.

This piece was originally published in the Times

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