I’ve been thinking for some time about the way in which British politics is changing, and I have come to realise that the traditional two-and-a-half party system which has prevailed since the 1920s doesn’t really work anymore. Increasingly, people are identifying themselves not so much along the old left/right divide but according to different political priorities: liberal vs authoritarian, globalist vs nationalist and, of course, Remainer vs Brexiteer.
Under these circumstances, it is no longer possible to have a solidly and coherently left-wing Labour Party pitched against a broadly right-wing Conservative Party, with the Liberal Democrats floating free as a centrist, internationalist bubble, adhering to one side or the other according to circumstances. And one of the major obstacles to any potential realignment of the political parties is the antiquated and unrepresentative electoral system of first-past-the-post (FPTP).
Supporters of the current method of electing our MPs tend to rely heavily on two arguments. The first is that it is simple and explicable: you draw a line around a set number of people (a constituency), each of them has one vote, said votes are counted and the candidate who achieves the highest level of support is returned as an MP. That’s an easy sell to an unengaged public whose dinner-party conversations are not dominated by discussions of electoral reform. People understand the equation between “most votes” and “success”.
But the fairness of FPTP is only superficial. Dig even an inch under the surface and you’ll see how inequitable it is. In many constituencies, the very system of election ensures that you will be represented by an MP against whom the majority of constituents voted. Now, we operate a positivist democracy in the UK, whereby people vote in favour of things rather than against them. It is not such a difficult concept to juggle in that there is an inherent unfairness in picking someone as your local representative who was, by accident or design, not given the preference of the majority of his or her constituents.
The second argument which tends to be used is that FPTP may be a flawed system, but at least it generally returns stable governments – not the fragmented coalitions which dominate the European countries we like to sneer at and patronise. The more literate supporters of the current system like to remind us of Disraeli’s phrase that “England does not love coalitions.” But, really, is this argument watertight anymore? We had a coalition government from 2010 to 2015, after no single party achieved an overall majority or anything like it. From 2015 to 2017, we had a Conservative government with a very small (though workable, at least in the short term) majority, and since 2017, we have had a Conservative government which, like its John Major-led predecessor, has seen its tiny parliamentary advantage dwindle and disappear, relying on the paid-for votes of a sectarian party from Northern Ireland to sustain itself in office. That’s nearly a decade - and three election cycles - for which FPTP has not, by any means, returned stable governments.
The FPTP system also privileges the two largest established parties, the Conservatives and Labour. In a vicious cycle of patronage, they maintain a death grip on electoral success, which in turn attracts substantial donations, generally from big business (the Conservatives) and the trades unions (Labour). This financially robust foundation in turn perpetuates their electoral advantage, and so the cycle begins again. The Liberal Democrats, the smaller parties and any putative new electoral group have to fight against long-entrenched vested interest. This means that ambitious but able politicians are faced with a dilemma: achieve office and influence but make ever-murkier compromises with your conscience and beliefs, or remain theologically pure and devout but attach yourself to a party with no hope of winning power. Unless this cycle is broken, we will never achieve harmony between honest, genuine politicians and legitimate ambition to act in the public service.
These are the problems, then: unfairness, a lack of stability and stifling conformity. Three problems which, on their own, would surely be enough to make anyone think twice about maintaining the current electoral system. What should replace it? Well, whole pamphlets and books could be - and have been - written about that, and the devil really is in the detail. Every man and woman has their own preference for some new system, whether it be the additional member system (AMS), the alternative vote (AV), true proportional representation (PR), or some other more-or-less complicated scheme.
But we must not allow ourselves to be defeated by the apparent scale of the challenge. If we simply write off change as “too difficult” or “too complicated,” we impoverish ourselves intellectually and politically. Stasis is always the easiest option, but it is rarely the best.
My own view is that I think some kind of reform is inevitable. Sooner or later, dissatisfaction with the unrepresentative nature of our electoral system and the results it produces will boil over, and the demand for something new will be unanswerable. So let’s do it now. Let’s free ourselves from the shackles of our old democracy. Let’s think again: make it fair, make it free and make it fitting. And, as an old music hand, let me tell you this: change is coming.
Chris Wright, CBE is Co-Founder and Chairman of Chrysalis Group.
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