Recent years have seen increasing distrust and disillusionment with the political process across the United Kingdom. Many believe that a major cause of this is the current First Past the Post (FTTP) electoral system and that changing to Proportional Representation (PR) is vital to restoring trust in our political institutions. 30th October saw a lively Parliamentary Debate of the issue, resulting from a Parliamentary Petition organised by Make Votes Matter and others.
An impressive turnout saw the Pro PR side represented by Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Twigg, Stephen Kinnock (Labour). Caroline Lucas (Green) Norman Lamb and Tom Brake (Liberal) Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru) Tommy Sheppard (SNP)and others.
They argued that many MPs are elected with less than half of the votes and are then almost immovable however unpopular they are. This writer grew up in a constituency where even local Conservative Party members could not remove their own MP, one of the worst then sitting. And they really did try! Often a vote cast against a sitting MP is thought wasted.
Many people are voting tactically to prevent candidates being elected rather than for positive reasons. In 2015, most MPs won less than 50% of the votes cast in their constituencies and 191 won less than 30%. A record was set in Belfast with an MP elected on 24.5% of the vote, this is hardly a mandate to make decisions for the whole constituency.
Parties are becoming more tribal. Some MPs now refuse to speak to anyone of a different persuasion, which does not aid Parliamentary business. MPs tend to vote against things rather than for them. FPTP is acceptable for two party systems but is inadequate for multi-party elections. None of this is good for democracy.
Steve Double, Chris Skidmore (Parliamentary Secretary Cabinet Office) Sir Roger Gale and others put the case for the current FTTP system.
They argued that, while FPTP is far from perfect, it is the least worst system and that simplicity and ease of operation mean the majority of elections result in an outright winner and a Government being formed within days.
They argued that this produces strong and stable governance which everybody understands and that this has served the country well for many years. This was met with some laughter by the PR lobby. It was revealed that the Government wishes to align all elections to FPTP. FPTP is a British export used by millions, mainly in India and the US, with huge populations but not generally elsewhere. Though, the US hardly appears to be a thriving democracy.
The importanceof the link between MPs and their constituents was emphasised by many speakers on both sides, with those in favour of change pointing out that many forms of PR allow for this.
An argument pertinent to both sides is that some may not wish to approach an MP whom they did not vote for. PR may well produce multi-party constituencies with MPs of different interests and skills. It could be argued that an MP should represent all constituents. If they are not so doing so they should not be there.
It was argued that PR could be less democratic resulting in backroom deals and manifestos commitments reneged on. Accepted by both sides in this Parliamentary Debate was that the Cons/Liberal coalition had been a stable government with lively, productive debates.
It was argued that PR would further concentrate power in the hands of the party machine, with party list systems and candidates being chosen on their party loyalty rather than personal merits. This could be avoided, it depends on the methods used. (It is worth pointing out that MPs should in theory be elected as individuals not as a party member).
The point was made that much of the malaise lay within the parties, their selection procedures and attitude toward the electorate. It was these that needed reform. Those in favour of PR accept that it is not a ‘silver bullet’ which would solve all of our problems, but that it would represent one very significant step towards doing so.
There are many arguments for and against PR and many were aired in this three hour debate. The websites below give much more detail. Surely, with polls now showing the majority of voters, particularly Labour, supporting it, the time has come for the change.
The system would be one used successfully in Scotland, Wales, the GLA etc., in the UK.
Support was shown from the FPTP side at the debate for PR for a reformed Upper Chamber, probably as a series of constitutional reforms after Brexit but with the major business undertaken in the Commons that is surely where the reform should be.
More information can be found at:
www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems and other sites.
The debate can still be viewed at www.parliamentlive.tv/Event Scroll down to view.
The North London Branch of MVM meets on the second Tuesday of the month at Muswell Hill Quaker Meeting House, 77 Church Crescent, London, N10 3NE.
Please contact [email protected] If you wish to get involved, you will be very welcome whatever your political persuasion, or even if you, like myself, just wish to vote for the candidate of your choice irrespective of party.