Big Debate: Does the UK need electoral reform to replace first past the post?
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
This week we ask whether or not the UK’s electoral system needs reforming.
Following the election of a majority Conservative government, smaller parties like the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Green Party feel the “first past the post system” allows unpopular governments to hold onto power they don’t deserve. Jamie McKenzie was West Ham’s Ukip candidate for the general election, and believes we need electoral reform. But Festus Akinbusoye, West Ham’s Tory candidate for 2015, believes the system works as we ask: “Does the United Kingdom need electoral reform to replace first past the post?”
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Jamie McKenzie, Ukip’s 2015 general election candidate for West Ham
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It is no surprise that many are disillusioned with politics and do not vote.
One reason is that the more established political parties are so similar.
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But another is that the results are so far from the intentions of the voters because of our first past the post (FPTP) system.
Ukip won the European Union general election, but ended up in the UK general election with just one MP despite obtaining almost eight million votes.
To obtain one MP, the Conservatives needed 34,384 votes while for the same outcome Ukip needed 3,881,129.
The SNP (Scottish National Party) got fewer than half of the votes of Ukip but this did not mean that Ukip got more MPs, it got just one – while the SNP got 56.
The Liberal Democrats needed to get eight times as many votes as the Conservatives to obtain the same result of one MP.
Clearly this is wrong and proportional representation (PR) would be better.
Those against change will say that coalition government is bad and that it is inevitable under PR.
I would find it difficult to disagree if our previous coalition is cited but Germany has had coalition governments since 1945.
If UK governments and German ones are compared over the same time span, it would be difficult to make a case for ours being better or more stable.
The other defence of FPTP is that of the anti-radical who wishes things to remain the same and stick with the familiar. This is wrong in my view. The traditionalist mindset which seeks to retain the old ways is the same outlook which in the past failed to see what was wrong with representation for the aristocracy only, for property owners only and for men only. We look back with contempt at those forms of democracy and one day, we will look back at the current system in the same way.
Festus Akinbusoye, Conservative Party’s 2015 general election candidate for West Ham
Critics of the FPTP system cite a lack of proportionality and fairness as reasons for change.
I disagree with this view for three reasons.
Firstly, the key issue is not about finding a perfect system of determining who represents us, but raising the level of political engagement.
Proportional Representation (PR) will be no better a system if only 35 per cent of those eligible to vote turn out.
Listening to critics of FPTP, you would think an alternative voting system was the solution to political disengagement. The truth is it isn’t.
We’d be better off focusing our energies on making politicians more accountable.
Secondly, critics of the 2010 coalition focused largely on “LibDem betrayal” over student fees.
A PR system will guarantee coalitions for eternity, making party promises meaningless.
Nobody who wants parties to be held to account can support a system that makes dark-room deals the norm and accountability based on election promises impossible.
You only need look at Israel, Belgium and Italy as examples of perpetual coalitions when FPTP is not in place.
And PR makes it much easier for radical far right and left parties to get into office.
Do we really want a BNP-like party in Westminster? I doubt it.
Thirdly, once we go into the detail of what a proportional system may look like, we get even more confusion.
Some systems require huge multi-MP constituencies, making it extremely difficult for MPs to build relationships with voters.
For example, a seven-member Scottish constituency would cover an area it would take more than five hours to travel across, not including the islands.
If you thinks it’s hard to reach your MP now, try doing so under a PR system!
Our focus as a democracy is to make the voice of the electorate heard. No electoral system is perfect but FPTP is the best and we should stick with it.