Does Britain need Proportional Representation?

23 Apr 2015

With the 2015 General Election looming, the prospect of another hung parliament looks incredibly likely. We all knew a hung parliament was likely by the time of the last General Election in 2010, but the difference back then was that by the time Cameron and Clegg formed a coalition, a lot of people thought that this would only be a temporary thing. The unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats led many people to wonder if coalitions actually work when one party has to betray so many manifesto promises (i.e. the infamous Lib Dem u-turn on tuition fees). That Cameron was confident that by the time the economy began to recover and with him being able to push through boundary changes that would make a Conservative majority more likely, this was only going to be a temporary marriage of convenience.


Yes, the economy has recovered dramatically, faster than many people expected, and Labour are arguably in such a mess that it makes you wonder why they are still neck and neck with the Conservatives in the polls. But as we all remember, Cameron was not able to get away with pushing through boundary changes that would favour the Conservatives. And the difference between 2010 and 2015 is that now we have many more minor parties that are gaining attention and are likely to win more votes (and possibly more seats) than ever before. The recent debates show how popular they have become.


There is no doubt First-Past-The-Post is not perfect. In 2005, Labour gained 36% of the vote and was still able to form a majority. In 2010, the Conservatives gained the same percentage of the vote and were just under twenty seats short of a majority. The system is incredibly biased towards Labour. If Labour and Conservatives gained the same percentage of the vote in a General Election conducted under First-Past-the-Post, then Labour would still end up with so many more seats than the Conservatives. And that is because Labour is able to pick up so many inner-city seats on such a small percentage of the vote. It is possible that this system is part of the reason as to why people are so disengaged in politics when the British people know full well that their votes are likely to be wasted in so many safe seats.  Ironically, since the days of Burke, the Conservatives have always believed in a strong government and that is why they traditionally support the First-Past-the-Post. However, they have not been able to win a majority since 1992 under this system and campaigned for the system during the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011.


In 2011, I campaigned against the Alternative Vote system being used for British General Elections. I am glad that I did that and still stand by my choice to this day because the Alternative Vote system is not fair in the sense that it allows far too many MPs to be elected without fifty per cent of the vote. It would mean too many second preferences being redistributed to ensure every MP has fifty per cent of the vote and it certainly does not solve the Conservatives’ dilemma of achieving a strong government or the Liberal Democrats’ dilemma of improving the number of seats they would normally win under First-Past-the-Post.


But does that mean Britain should now use Proportional Representation in future elections? I could certainly be swayed by that argument because the two main parties are no longer winning a large enough share of the vote to form an overall majority. First-Past-the-Post may be more biased towards Labour, but the system even looks likely to deny Labour a majority as Labour face annihilation in Scotland and UKIP are posing a massive threat in traditional territory like Rotherham. It seems (excluding the Northern Irish parties) Britain now has seven main political parties as opposed to three like we did in 2010. If this trend towards minor parties looks set to stay, alongside the prospect of coalition governments, then it makes sense. Even some of the Greens’ barmy policies are not switching people off voting Green! People would probably continue to grow angry towards politics if they know they are voting under a system that prevents their preferred party from winning a seat. Also, First-Past-the-Post does tend to generate a tendency of complacency amongst MPs in certain safe seats. Look what happened to Lembit Opik in 2010.


Yet despite this, I do not think Britain is ready for Proportional Representation. For a start, which system of PR would be best for our elections? Look at countries like Italy which prove everything that is wrong with PR. Whilst coalitions look likely to stay, the good thing about First-Past-the-Post, even under these unique circumstances, is that it can prevent small parties that are a bit out there from gaining too many seats. And with the SNP looking likely to benefit from Labour’s collapse in Scotland, First-Past-the-Post still has a chance to deliver an overall majority for one of the main parties. If Labour or the Conservatives form a minority government, which looks most likely in my opinion as none of the other parties (excluding the SNP) look likely to win enough seats to form a majority with two of the main parties, then either party has a chance to go to the country and ask them for a majority in another General Election in the autumn. They have the chance to show how unworkable the predicted situation is and ask the British people for a majority. But the future of our electoral system depends on this election. I really hope the polls are wrong and that it is like 1992 all over again where the Conservatives gained a majority against all odds. I hope they realise how bad a situation where Miliband and Sturgeon working together achieves nothing and that people vote with their heads instead of their hearts.


So, even as things stand, Britain does not need Proportional Representation. First-Past-the-Post still has the chance to deliver what it says on the tin. But it would require people to realise what the alternatives to certain unthinkable coalitions not working are and for the main parties to start achieving more than forty per cent of the vote. But that is due to the main parties failure to engage with people and prevent these minor parties from rising that we have got to this stage. The Liberal Democrats have a lot to answer for there for promising policies that they knew they had no chance of delivering in a coalition (tuition fees AGAIN). So the failure lies not with our electoral system. We do not need unnecessary changes to how we vote. We need the main parties to prevent the likes of UKIP and the SNP from emerging and re-engage with people.

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