Strong government vs good government? First Past the Post means our governments will always fail to deliver

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 30th November 2023

Government failures are always in the news, but we rarely question why it is that our governments often seem so wholly incapable of delivering on their objectives. It’s easy to point at individual ministers and claim that if only we had the right people at the top then government would go back to operating like a well-oiled machine. But that ignores the fact that we keep changing the people at the top, and the failures continue.

Many people support electoral reform because they don’t think policies backed by a minority of the electorate should be imposed on the majority. But there is a strong case to be made that you should oppose First Past the Post if you want to see government policy succeed.

Ten years ago, Ivor Crewe and the late Anthony King wrote a well-received book called The Blunders of Our Governments, which charted the policy failures under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown. A new edition is coming out soon charting the policy failures of Cameron, May, Boris, Truss and Sunak.

As defined by Crewe and King, a ‘blunder’ is an unforced error – they identified the poll tax, mis-selling of private pensions, the exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the Millennium Dome as classic examples.

Blundering is a Westminster problem

Of course, other countries implement bad policies and make mistakes. But a mistake is not a blunder.

Back in 1995 the political scientist Patrick Dunleavy wrote a similar paper Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record in which he recalled a conversation with Dutch academics who had problems recalling similar instances. Eventually they recalled two minor projects that had to be cancelled, and re-tendered. The point was that when the Dutch government decided to do something, they did it. Political opponents might think a policy is a bad idea, but there was never the idea that the government would simply fail to implement the policy.

Strong governments can boldly charge in the wrong direction

The obvious difference between Westminster and our neighbours in Europe is our voting system, and it’s First Past the Post that creates the background for the blunders that Ivor Crewe, Anthony King and Patrick Dunleavy identified. The Westminster system is more than First Past the Post of course, but First Past the Post sits at the heart of it.

Westminster is based on the idea of having a ‘strong’ government – one that gets a majority in the House of Commons even if the majority of the public don’t want it to. One that faces very few hurdles to passing legislation with a weak second chamber and rarely any need to listen to other opinions.

As Jonathan Reynolds MP said back in 2017, there is a difference between good government and strong government.

“Whenever you think of things like the Iraq war or the poll tax, they were examples of strong government. I would argue very strongly they were, I’m afraid, not examples of good Government”

Johnathan Reynolds MP, 2017.

Strong government means that ministers can invent a policy and go straight to legislation without having to convince anyone else of the benefits. Policies are not scrutinised by people who have the power to force any actual changes, and ministers have no fear of legislation being defeated. Government backbenchers are the only people who could threaten the passage of legislation, but have few incentives to defeat their own government.

Proportional representation would make life harder for politicians, as they had to build majority support for policies, rather than just forcing them through on a minority of support. But it’s that process of building support that makes for a successful policy that actually delivers. Difficult is the road to policy success, but the rewards speak for themselves.

Do you want to see an end to the constant blunders?

Add your name to our call for proportional representation for Westminster

Add your name to our call for proportional representation in the UK

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