Westminster first-past-the-post elections “outdated anomaly”, campaigners say

Elliot Chappell

Electoral reform campaigners have described the use of first-past-the-post in UK general elections as an “outdated anomaly” as analysis shows a “huge contrast” with proportional representation elections in Wales, Scotland and London.

Launching Here to Stay: Two Decades of Proportional Representation, the Electoral Reform Society marked the anniversary of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, which it said ” paved the way for PR-elected devolved government”.

The 46-page report, backed by Labour MP Clive Lewis, Green MP Caroline Lucas and former Welsh deputy first minister Baroness Randerson, compared outcomes from PR against FPTP systems in the different areas over the past two decades.

It found that in the last seven general elections, the largest party in Scotland won on average 75% of the seats in the Commons with 43% of the vote; the largest party won 45% of seats in Holyrood, using PR, on 37% of regional list votes.

In Wales, the last seven Westminster elections have resulted in the leading party receiving 71% of the seats based on just 44% of votes cast. In Senedd elections, the largest party has won on average 48% of votes on 34% of regional lists votes.

The last seven UK general elections have seen the largest party take on average 66% of the seats in London, based on winning only 46% of the votes. The largest party has won on average 42% of seats based on 35% of the regional list vote in the six London Assembly elections in the same period.

“We can learn so much about the success of PR in Scotland, Wales and London. Giving all voters a voice and having politicians that work together to get things done is a far cry from the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster,” Lewis said.

“A lack of democracy in the UK has led us to climate breakdown and a second gilded age of hoarded wealth and power. We need more democracy, not less if our politics is to be made fit for the decades to come. Yet our electoral system is out of sync with the culture and people it’s supposed to serve and represent.”

The ERS is calling for a shift away from a “one-party-takes-all” approach at Westminster to a proportional system such as single transferable vote, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference in multi-member districts.

Commenting on the analysis, ERS director of policy and research Dr Jess Garland said: “This report shows how PR produces much fairer outcomes in Scotland, Wales and London than Westminster’s warped first-past-the-post system. PR gives voters real representation and the comfort of knowing that their vote will count.

“It’s clear that English voters are being left behind, short-changed by our electoral system and, all too often, they see their votes cast aside on the scrap heap come election time .

“It’s time England and Westminster caught up. Reform is long overdue to ensure that all elections in the UK are run via proportional representation and First Past the Post is consigned to history.”

PR aims to ensure that the share of seats won matches the level of support from voters. Its advocates point out that the UK is the only country in Europe to use first-past-the-post for general elections apart from Belarus, a dictatorship.

Polling last month found that 83% of Labour members believe the party should support changing the UK’s electoral system to PR, up from 76% less than two years ago. 10% say their party should not support the switch from FPTP.

As of May 2021, more than a third of Constituency Labour Parties across the country – over 225 local parties – have passed motions expressing support for proportional representation to be used in UK general elections.

But as local parties decide which issues to prioritise at Labour conference in September, campaigners have warned that electoral reform will only be debated in Brighton if dozens of CLPs send PR policy motions to conference.

Labour MPs and pressure groups joined forces in September last year to launch ‘Labour for a New Democracy’. The campaign to build support for electoral reform within Labour has a model motion for members to present to their local parties.

This motion specifies that the exact kind of PR voting system that Labour would endorse in its next manifesto and legislate for when in government would be determined by an “open and inclusive process” convened by the party.

Keir Starmer, whose support is crucial to getting a commitment to PR into the next Labour manifesto, vowed during his leadership campaign to consult party members on electoral reform and to include it in a constitutional convention.

“We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed by electoral reform. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level,” he said.

Starmer went on to tell Labour members that, if elected to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader, he would deliver a “radical devolution of power”. At the end of last year, Starmer announced the launch of a UK-wide constitutional commission.

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