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Y13 revision - electoral reform

Mike McCartney

28th April 2023

Public support - another argument in favour of ditching first past the post for Westminster elections!

If you didn't already know, the UK stands as one of only two European countries 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).

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.

But what we can now add to the arguments in favour is public opinion. I missed the announcement last autumn about a new option poll, and only picked it up thanks to a tweet by Caroline Lucas MP. So this is a new point to add to the arguments in favour.

The survey arrives from the National Centre for Social Research, and the key findings from their press release are as follows:

"For the first time since the British Social Attitudes survey began in 1983, more people in Britain favour introducing proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons than keeping the voting system as it is.

The survey, by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), found this shift in attitudes is largely the result of an increase in recent years in backing among Labour supporters.

  • 51% now favour reform to the voting system for elections to the House of Commons, up from 27% in 2011 and 43% in 2017.
  • 44% believe the voting system should remain as it is, down from 66% in 2011 and 49% in 2017.
  • For the first time, a majority of Labour supporters (61%) favour electing MPs using proportional representation, up from 27% in 2011 and 47% in 2017.
  • 69% of Liberal Democrats, but only 29% of Conservatives, favour electoral reform."

This is politics gold (!) and a great inclusion across all three assessment objectives when it comes to a potential exam answer.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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