Ditching ‘first past the post’

March 7, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 1 Comment
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As an interesting counterpart to the current debate about the apparent disenfranchisement of the white working class, The Progressive reports on an event debating whether Labour should ditch its commitment to ‘first past the post’ and introduce some form of proportional representation. Here, Stephen Pound makes nervous noises:

‘To think somehow that proportional representation is Viagra for a flaccid electorate not voting in great numbers, that’s a terrible mistake.’


The MP for Ealing North argued that the reasons behind low voter turnout ran deeper than the technicalities of the voting system. ‘It’s when politics matters less to people that they don’t vote. Our job is to make politics relevant to people.’

He’s correct, at least, in stating part of his job description, but I’d argue that low turnouts are more indicative of a flaccid politics than a flaccid electorate. If, after over 10 years, three Labour governments and two Prime Ministers, you still don’t seem any closer to reinvigorating our elections, if every half-measure and mini-initiative you’ve tried has failed, perhaps it’s time for some bolder ideas. Polly Toynbee talks some sense:

Toynbee said that Labour should have ditched FPTP when it came to power in 1997 but that during those heady days it could not conceive of a time when it might benefit from electoral reform. ‘If it’s a hung parliament next time, it will look very cynical if the parties come round to PR just to hold onto power.’

Toynbee said that under FPTP parties to ‘descend on the centre ground where the shade of difference of what is said is so infinitesimal’ in a bid to capture the tiny number of swing voters. ‘There are big differences at heart but the voting system makes the parties cross-dress.’

It also leads to such an obsessive focus on marginal constituencies that it seems our politicians campaign not to the country but to those constituencies where votes really matter. Why else would Tory partisan Lord Ashcroft be pouring vast amounts of his own money into these constituencies? In the fight to hold/gain marginal seats, the easy seats of traditional, working class Labour heartlands can afford to be ignored.

In theory, proportional representation would mean the methods and messages of the parties would need to become broader and more inclusive. To increase its share of the vote (and thus its share of seats in Parliament), Labour would need to realise the dormant potential of its heartlands, work closer with trade unions to bring working people to the polls and, most importantly, produce policies and rhetoric that would give them something to vote for.

All of which sounds like an incredibly enthusiastic vote in favour, but in truth I don’t think PR would necessarily be a miracle drug for our democracy and I haven’t even resolved some of the issues I have with it, like whether local issues would be marginalised, how it can lead to constituencies electing MPs who only came second or third in the popular vote, whether it makes MPs less accountable to their constituents.

Then there’s the thorny issue of forcing folks to the polls. Compulsory voting – brought to you by the same illiberal, top-down changeniks whose greatest hits include ASBOS, the smoking ban, identity cards and moral panics over obesity and binge drinking – is yet another sign that the government believes it can legislate us all into becoming better citizens. Whether it would encourage people to become more active in the politics or merely foster resentment and result in ‘none of the above’ being the overwhelming winner is not something I’d like to bet on.

If you ask me, the one saving grace about first past the post is that it shows our politics needs fixing. Whilst PR isn’t perfect, compulsory voting would surely just paper over the cracks.

Photo taken by Flickr user Neil Wykes, borrowed under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. […] system of voting that more accurately reflects the number of votes each party receives, I’ve argued that it has the potential to increase voting turn-out by making people in traditionally safe […]

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