In the News

Andy Burnham calls for a switch to PR for Westminster elections

Mike McCartney

28th June 2022

Find out what 'King of the North' has to say

I've typed before on these pages that the debate over reforming the system for choosing our MPs is as old as the hills. I remember writing essays on this, for instance, when I studied Politics at school in the 1980s - or what in Scotland we call Modern Studies (which pupils start learning at the start of secondary school, north of the border).

So, the UK stands as one of only two countries in the whole of Europe that employs the simple plurality system, often referred to as first past the post (fptp), for elections to its national parliament, with the other being Belarus.

Before looking at Andy Burnham's piece, as a recap...

The arguments for scrapping the simple plurality system for the House of Commons go something like this

  • PR would produce fairer results since it could convert a share of the vote equally into a share of the seats. Currently fptp does not do this.
  • According to campaigners, the introduction of PR for Westminster would bring to an end the system of ‘disproportionate representation’ we have at present under fptp.
  • Opponents of the fptp system would argue that the inherent faults within the system depress turnout and because PR would mean all votes count then people would be more inclined to vote.
  • Supporters of proportional electoral systems argue that fewer votes are wasted than under the current system. Under fptp many of the votes cast do not matter since they go towards a candidate other than the winner, or they are surplus to the number needed to elect the winner.
  • On a related point, what pro-PR campaigners call ‘safe seat syndrome’ means that turnout is likely to be lowest in the safest seats, and highest where the votes is likely to be close.
  • Only a tiny percentage of the electorate have the power to influence the outcome of the General Election.
  • The current system for Westminster elections is said to lead to the under-representation of women.
  • In conclusion it is clear that, as the ERS argue, “in a modern democracy fairness, accountability and a real choice for voters should not be compromised.”

However, defenders of the system argue that

  • It is a tried and tested system with a certain amount of public acceptance. It is also simple and easy for people to understand.
  • The fptp system has historically been simple, familiar, quick to count, and most of the time produces a clear and decisive result.
  • The close relationship between MPs and constituencies is a vital feature of the current system.
  • First past the post has the effect of keeping out small, extremist parties by discriminating against them - the UK is alone among European democracies in never having elected a fascist to its national legislature, for example
  • First past the post presents a clear choice for voters but this can be seen as a device for maintaining control over who is elected.
  • Lastly, and of particular relevance here: there is usually no need for coalitions since the natural mechanics of the system produces single party governments with (in recent times often large) overall majorities. This avoids the need for wrangling amongst coalition partners over what policies are to be introduced – usually behind closed doors, and in smoke-filled rooms. First past the post, by contrast, tends to delivers strong, single party government with a clear electoral mandate.

Writing on the Observer online, Burnham said:

"First-past-the-post, combined with the whip system, takes the votes of millions and turns them into inordinate power for a small Whitehall elite. Government MPs troop through the lobbies rubber-stamping their decisions. Any ability to mitigate the worst of them has long since been removed from local government.

This over-concentration of power in one London postcode makes it far too easy for vested interests to manipulate political decision-making. What else explains the extent to which the political elite have been captured by the mantra that the market solves everything?"

See the full article here

Exercises

  • Briefly explain how fptp (single member simple plurality) works
  • Summarise the arguments in the article for electoral reform, alongside wider constitutional reforms
  • Discuss whether you agree with what Andy Burnham has said

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