‘Strong and stable’? Westminster’s voting system is anything but

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 15th June 2017

Voters won’t be bossed about – perhaps that’s the first lesson we should take from the election. From voting for a parliament where no party got more than half the seats in an election hinged on ‘strength and stability’, or rejecting the notion that the election was all about Brexit, the public broke out of any boxes pundits or parties have tried to put them in.

And despite the focus on the national picture, we’ve seen a huge amount of local variation. Unpredictable, close and even random results defined this election – and sadly, record numbers were forced by an old-fashioned system to vote tactically, inevitably distorting the results.

We shouldn’t be shocked by voter volatility. The one stable feature of politics over the few decades has been the gradual shift in social attitudes which underpin political preferences – most profoundly the shift from 98% support for Conservative and Labour in the 1950s to record numbers voting for parties outside the ‘Big Three’ in 2015.

As we have become less deferential and more diverse – socially as well as in other respects – we don’t toe the party line any longer, because most of us don’t belong or feel life-long allegiance to one party any more. That we are surprised is because a winner-takes-all system made it ‘normal’ to give one party a lion’s share of seats on a minority of the votes – regardless of how the majority voted. That is clearly no longer the case.

For three elections in a row, Westminster’s voting system has failed to work even on its own terms – producing two Parliaments where no party got more than half the seats, and in 2015 a wafer-thin majority amid the most disproportional result in British history. When the vote shares of both main parties significantly increases and yet neither can nail a majority to govern alone, something is well and truly bust.

Consider this – Theresa May’s vote share matches that of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, who had landslides in 1979 and 1997. Jeremy Corbyn has secured around the same seat share as Gordon Brown in 2010, but Brown’s 258 seats were delivered on only 29% of the vote. Seats never matched votes, but amid today’s volatile politics, the equation is ever more erratic.

There’s a silver lining – as the PM seeks to form a workable government by negotiating with others, her party is practising grown-up politics. This is normal in countries the world over where proportional systems ensure seats match votes, and coalitions are formed to reflect voters’ choices.

But while there’s nothing unstable about parties combining forces, the difference is that a fairer voting system shines a light on alliance-building during the campaign and creates real legitimacy: parties and voters know that power-sharing power is possible, and they’re ready for the results.

Democracy should celebrate diversity. So politics should work with the grain of people’s diverse views – with governments formed that can reflect the electorate in all parts of the country. Voters once again have refused to give a mandate to any one party. They will expect parties to work together to form a government now.

This has been the third strike for First Past the Post: it’s out. We’ve witnessed an election where 21st century voters have collided with a 19th century system, second guessing each other and holding their nose at the ballot box. The results have been correspondingly erratic.

It’s time to bring how we vote into line with how people want to vote, to give the public a democracy that can reflect all voices, and to make every vote count. It’s more clear than ever that voters have changed. Now the system needs to change too.

This article originally appeared in The Times

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