The distorted, undemocratic world of First-Past-The-Post

Each of us has our own particular pique with the whole PartyGate fiasco down in London – for some it’s the rule-breaking, for some the lies, for some the idea of braying Tory wonks giddy on champagne while the rest of the country cowers in lockdown., writes David Clarke, EMiS vice-chair.

For me my particular bugbear is having to listen to journalists, commentators and Tory MPs tell me that Boris Johnson is, or once was, a winner. Because it’s only the UK’s ridiculous first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that makes him one.

 In fact only in the night-is-day, black-is-white, garden-soirees-are-work gaslighted UK of recent years could someone who garnered just 43.6% of the UK-wide vote –a clear minority and just 29% of the electorate – be given an unassailable 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, our present electoral system has a pernicious, corrupting effect on our discourse which means we can’t see plainly what is in front of us: namely, that a majority of British people don’t want a Tory government and, for as long as I can remember, never have. And because Johnson is so divisive, you can be sure that the 56% who didn’t vote for him in 2019 (remember this was the election that the best the Labour party could offer up was Corbyn) were truly voting against the Tories and their hard Brexit. It’s not that people want Johnson to quit after the drip-drip of revelations of the past few weeks – they never wanted him there in the first place.

So here’s a suggestion: how about we have a proportional system where when 44% of the electorate vote for a party they get 44% of the seats in the legislature?

Hark, I hear some utterly ridiculous and fallacious arguments! “What about stability?” say the Tories and their fellow travellers. FPTP means that we get a stable, solid majority government. Well yes, but so does dictatorship – China seems remarkably stable but that doesn’t make it democratic. Aha, they say, what about those messy continentals who seem to struggle with proportional representation? Germany, Sweden, Ireland all seem to do remarkably well. In fact, the UK has given the most calamitous banana republics a run for their money recently, what with the Brexit fiasco, and three prime ministers over the three years of 2016-19. Stability under the Tories versus chaos under Ed Miliband indeed! 

So why is this utterly unsatisfactory state of affairs allowed to continue? The sad answer is the Labour Party. Labour believes it has skin in the game on FPTP – that in the roll of the dice every few years it will get into power, absolute power, and be able to drive through its agenda. If that means 10, 12, 18 years of Tory government while the people it represents are hammered and disenfranchised, then so be it. 

In fact the only way we can make this change is by progressive voters across the UK taking on the task themselves. That means both local and UK-wide initiatives to guide voters to the contenders who can beat the local Tory candidate and, crucially, once elected, will support electoral reform. The resulting government, almost certainly a coalition, should have one overriding task of instituting wide ranging constitutional reform, a key element of which will be proportional representation for Westminster elections. Other reforms should include allowing UK nations self-determination – no longer will we have to rely on the largesse of a Boris Johnson or David Cameron for an independence vote.

Whether it’s the environment, the fight against corruption in public life, a belief that the wealthiest should pay more in taxes, minority rights, internationalism or even Scotland’s inalienable right to decide its own future, the answer is proportional representation. History will not easily forgive those who allowed minority Tory governments to ride roughshod over the progressive UK majority again and again because they could not band together on a shared electoral reform platform.

The gauntlet is down, the challenge is here. Progressives, wise up!

First published by The National and reproduced with the author’s permission