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Electoral reform in the UK Parliament is a matter of utmost urgency

17 Apr 2024 6 minute read
A voter placing a ballot paper in the ballot box at a polling station. Photo Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Dr Keith Darlington

Mike Hedges MS believes that alternative voting systems are not politically neutral.

That may be true, but as I show in this article, none are as maligned or as bad as the UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) system.

Indeed, it’s so bad that apart from Belarus, the UK is the only European country still using this system.

The FPTP system may have functioned adequately after WW2 when the two main parties were broad churches and shared 95% of the total vote.

However, today, the two main parties rarely secure more than 65% of the vote and have become narrow church parties.

This shift has led to the situation where alternative ideas are not being heard, clearly indicating that the FPTP system is unfit for its purpose.

The problems with FPTP

There are many reasons why FPTP is a bad system. FPTP makes votes in many constituencies worthless – contributing to low turnouts.  FPTP is unfair to small parties in underrepresentation, meaning alternative opinions do not get a hearing. FPTP encourages many to stay at home if they reside in a safe seat because they know that however they vote will not affect the outcome.

This also encourages many to vote against their preferred candidate in some seats – so-called tactical voting.

There is also the absurdity of parties channelling all energy (and finances) into less than 50 marginal seats – because they are the seats likely to change hands. In other words, less than 10% of voters in particular seats mostly determine election results.

The more serious problems with FPTP

However, recent changes in voter behaviour show a more urgent need for replacing the FPTP system.

The two main parties are no longer as inclusive as they were 50 years ago. Harold Wilson once boasted that his Labour Party was a broad church—with an active Left and Right wing.

Not anymore. Starmer has eviscerated the Left—not only Corbyn but others, too.

The Labour leader has threatened expulsion for members or MPs from having dissenting opinions on accepting Brexit, criticising NATO, strikes, and even calling for changes in the voting system.

This has meant that going public with slightly differing opinions from the official party lines is now a rarity.

On the Tory side, Boris Johnson weeded out the Remain dissenters before the last GE.

Both sides now expect obedience from MPs, which never happened before.

This has important consequences.

Brexit is crippling many businesses, yet there is hardly an MP in either of the main parties who will dare mention it.

Surely, members should freely say whether the Brexit agreement can be improved. Given the perilous position of the UK, you’d think there would be a little more outspoken opinion, but quite the opposite is happening to Westminster democracy.

MPs are becoming cheerleaders for their party leaders and little else.

This means politics is broken in other ways. For example, MPs nowadays seem to feel the only safe ground for talking is to rubbish the other side.

Parliament has become a Punch and Judy show where MPs thrive on bashing the party opposite rather than daring to think and discuss new solutions to our many problems. T

his has led to a stonewalling culture where MPs refuse to give opinions, let alone details of their beliefs.

When Keir Starmer was interviewed by Wales Online recently, he refused to answer questions about investment for Port Talbot, or the M4 relief road. It wasn’t just refusing to give details; he wouldn’t even give a general direction for travel.

His comments were mostly focused on attacking the Tories.

Narrow church FPTP politics is muzzling diverse opinions vital to a healthy democracy.

Smaller parties, like the Greens and UKIP, have polled millions of votes in previous elections yet have had only one MP in the UK Parliament.

As a consequence, political debates have been reduced to a rubber-stamp.

Only a fairer representation for smaller parties can provide the diversity of viewpoints that ensure that Parliament can serve its intended purpose.

Instead, the winner-take-all ethos of FPTP has led to the absurdities of the Liz Truss horror show that caused financial mayhem and huge increases in mortgage payments for many families in Wales and across the UK.

FPTP has served the two main parties well, and neither Labour nor the Tory leadership want to change it.

Cooperating and sharing power with other parties is, perhaps, understandably, not something they would want to do.

But this leaves a legacy of tribal politics.

Trust in politics is at an all-time low.

Furthermore, democracy should not be determined by the vagaries of an electoral system but by the proportions of people who vote for a party.

Labour, for example, has polled an average of 35% in the last five general elections; at the 2005 general election, they polled just 35.2% of those eligible to vote.

Yet, at that election, they had a majority of 55 seats, giving them absolute power. It’s hardly democratic, but it often happens because of how FPTP works.

Abolish FPTP and change UK politics for the better

Contrary to some beliefs on the Left, sharing power with other parties would not dilute Labour’s policies but probably improve them.

Collaborating with parties like the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Lib Dems could give them the authority and support to invest, for example, in renewable energy.

It would also mean that the Tories would be out of power more often because they seldom poll enough, even if supported by Reform UK.

However, electoral reform would mean that Labour would have to listen to the views of other parties and its membership rather than being swayed by their spin doctors, special advisors, and the media when making decisions.

Starmer has ruled out change, but to their credit, Welsh Labour has succeeded in a fairer voting system.

If UK Labour could show enough courage and implement PR, there is a strong chance that UK politics would improve.

After the last few decades of chaos, that cannot come too soon.

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1 month ago

We get yoyo governments. The huge risk now is an even further far right Tory party will arise after Labour probable win at the next GE and they will be out for vengeance (I say probable as its never over till the last x is counted).

Labour members need to hold Starmers feet over the coals on this.

1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff

The people most likely to hold Starmer’s leadership to account within Labour have been kicked out in his purge. We now have a far right radical imperialist party and a right wing british nationalist status quo party. I shudder to think what the next parliament will bring.

Iago Traferth
Iago Traferth
1 month ago
Reply to  Annibendod


1 month ago
Reply to  Iago Traferth


1 month ago

Agree with almost everything in this article. I’ll only add the following – the d’Hondt method is *an* improvement on FPTP. However, it falls far short of what a healthy democracy needs because it allows parties to place unelectable individuals as first choice on their list knowing the diehard vote will get them in. Electorates will no longer be able to weed out undesirable politicians and the potential for them to wield undue influence within their party is a serious concern e.g. Andrew RT Davies. Secondly, the manner in which Vaughan Gething secured his leadership victory was deeply dubious. Imagine… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Annibendod
Richard Davies
Richard Davies
1 month ago

I totally agree with this article, i personally think that any version of PR would be better than what we have at the moment—boris johnson got an 80-seat majority from 29.36% of the eligible electorate in 2019!

In addition to replacing FPTP there should be a push to go even further with democracy in the uk with an elected head of state instead of hereditary monarchy!

Doctor Trousers
Doctor Trousers
1 month ago

Absolutely spot on, though I think there’s a truly desperately urgent reason for electoral reform that’s only touched upon here. Under FTTP, if labour fail to inspire voters to keep them in power for more than a single term, then a small percentage of the electorate could very easily re-elect the tories in just a few short years, and it will be a drastically extreme version of the tories. It will be the ideological equivalent of a farage led tory party, regardless of whether or not he ever actually rejoins them. As much as some may like to over-use the… Read more »

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