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Past the post

15 November 2019

CALLS for a reform of the UK electoral system usually break out after a General Election, when the losing parties contrast their share of the total votes cast with their disappointingly few seats in Westminster. The calls have come early this time, as the flaws in the first-past-the-post system were exposed by the “unilateral pact” by the Brexit Party, which declared on Monday that it would not contest seats currently held by Conservative candidates. Further pressure was then applied to persuade them to withdraw from constituencies where the Conservatives fancy their chances. The move showed how flawed the present system is. The first-past-the-post system works well only in two situations: when there are just two parties; or when each party has a discrete set of policies and supporters. When parties overlap, as was clear with the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, there is a clear prospect of splitting the electorate and allowing a third party to gain the seat with as little as 34 per cent of the vote; hence the “pact”. In the absence of a matching accommodation among the anti-Brexiters, Opposition party candidates in scores of constituencies are now desperately trying to comport themselves as if they were the likeliest to beat the Tories.

The Electoral Reform Society, in its “Up to Us” campaign, has proposed a citizens’ assembly to decide an alternative, hoping to capitalise on the “Something must be better than this” mood that has prevailed since the Brexit vote. The problem comes when that “something” is given substance. The 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, despite the intervention of several bishops, involved bitter disputes about virtually everything — the nature of AV (not true proportional representation), its likely cost, the tactics of the Coalition partners, even the date of the referendum. It effectively quenched any hope of persuading the political Establishment to ditch the present system — even though MPs used a form of AV to select their new Speaker.

The saving grace of the present system is geography. Each MP represents a distinct area, and, once the election is out of the way, he or she represents all the people in that area. In healthier times, that interaction feeds into national policies; but this has been undermined of late by an influx of career politicians, imposed on constituencies rather than adopted by them, and by a firmer use of the whip in Westminster. The suspension of 21 Conservative moderates on 3 September was a watershed, signalling that there is no place for MPs who put their constituents above party. As the 2016 referendum demonstrated, any system that allows a majority to govern without attending to the views of the minority tends to unfairness and injustice. The larger the majority, the deafer the government. Perhaps only a minority government after 12 December will open ears in Westminster again.

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