Make Votes Matter team member, Tim Ivorson, started a Parliamentary Petition calling for Proportional Representation near the end of 2016. The Government formally responded on it reaching 10,000 signatures. This is Tim's reply to the Government response.
Dear Cabinet Office.
I note your response to petition 168657 (“To make votes matter, adopt Proportional Representation for UK General Elections”), my petition for Proportional Representation (PR).
I am aware from Freedom of Information responses that the Government has neither made nor received any assessment of the continuing suitability of the UK’s electoral system since the 2010 election – meaning that you have not considered the issue since the most disproportionate election in British history, in May 2015.
It is therefore unsurprising that your response is inaccurate on a number of points. In particular, it contains five often-repeated myths, two of which are addressed in the limited space available for the petition. I have set these out below:
1. “The British people voted strongly against changing the current First Past the Post system in 2011”
"The Government’s manifesto made a commitment to respect the will of the British people as expressed in the 2011 UK Parliamentary elections voting system referendum and keep the First Past the Post system for elections to the House of Commons. The Government, therefore, has no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons.
At the voting system referendum in May 2011, electors were asked whether the Alternative Vote system (AV) should be used instead of the First Past the Post system for electing members of the House of Commons. The referendum produced a clear result with over 13 million voters rejecting the option for change to move away from the First Past the Post system, compared to over 6 million voters who voted for change."
However, the British people have never had a say on PR. In your next response, please confirm that you have read and understood the following text from the petition:
"The UK has never had a say on PR. As David Cameron himself said, the AV Referendum was on a system that is often less proportional than FPTP, so the rejection of AV could not possibly be a rejection of PR. In fact, so few voters wanted either system on offer that the turnout was just 42%"
2. “Proportional voting systems would weaken the direct constituency link which is a key feature of our Parliamentary system”
"The Government is concerned that proportional voting systems would weaken the direct constituency link which is a key feature of our Parliamentary system"
"[First Past the Post] provides a clear link between constituents and their representatives in Parliament."
It simply isn't true that PR would weaken the constituency link. All of the voting systems being used for devolved legislatures in the UK retain or even strengthen such a link.
The top-up systems of PR used to elect the German Bundestag, the New Zealand House of Representatives, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly include single-member constituencies, thereby providing the same constituency link as First Past the Post (FPTP).
The systems of PR used to elect the main legislative chambers of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, predominantly or solely use small multi-member constituencies and provide a different kind of constituency link. And the Single Transferable Vote – used to elect the Irish Dáil, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland – provides particularly strong local representation because (unlike under FPTP) all constituencies are genuinely competitive, most votes successfully elect a local candidate, and most voters therefore have at least one locally accountable representative whose views and values they share.
3. “Under a proportional system the voting process is more complicated for the voter”
"[FPTP is well] understood by voters and... under a proportional system the voting process is more complicated for the voter."
The process of voting is simple under any of the systems of PR used by the UK’s peers in the OECD. The voters of the United Kingdom are intelligent enough to use any of these systems.
In fact, in the most recent election to the Scottish Parliament – which takes place under PR – there was a lower percentage of spoilt ballots than in our last FPTP General Election (0.29% for the former to 0.33% for the latter).
Under FPTP, on the other hand, many people vote for candidates other than their favourites to avoid wasting their votes. Many people who choose not to do so must accept less influence. According to a BMG Research poll in May 2015, 9% of the public planned to vote for candidates who had better chances of winning than their first choices did. In comparison, less than 7% of votes separated the two biggest parties. For all we know the House of Commons is entirely a tactical compromise. FPTP isn’t simple. To choose it is to accept an unnecessary level of complexity, without getting fairer representation in return.
4. “The [FPTP] system is well established”
"The [FPTP] system is well established"
That is a strange opinion as it is only since World War II that the House of Commons’ multi-member constituencies were abolished. Even if we agreed, it would be a weak justification for FPTP. Length of service is no evidence of quality.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that the performance of FPTP has fallen. The rise of multi-party politics is causing FPTP to produce unacceptably disproportionate results more and more often, culminating with the most disproportionate election in British history in May 2015.
5. First Past the Post “results in a government with a working majority in Parliament making decisive government possible”
"More often than not, it [FPTP] results in a government with a working majority in Parliament making decisive government possible."
Majority governments are typical under PR. Often these majority governments are coalitions. Where no party has received a majority of votes, coalition governments have a number of advantages.
As my petition says, “FPTP violates the democratic principle of majority rule”. PR ensures the government is legitimate rule by representatives of the majority.
As my petition says “FPTP … causes problems like costly policy reversals”. PR typically provides a wider range of views in the executive, promoting long term planning, and inhibiting policy from bouncing between opposites.
The existence of a coalition agreement helps to minimise the disruption caused by cabinet reshuffles.
As David Runciman (the head of Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies) says, “We live in a world where national governments are increasingly buffeted by forces – notably international finance – that are very hard to control. Decisive, single-party governments are not the way to resist these forces, because their freedom of manoeuvre makes them easier to buy off without anyone else being able to hold them to account. What national democracies need is not more autonomy but more barriers in the way of any single political faction or grouping being able to call the shots. The presence in government of multiple parties representing multiple interests helps to give democracy a measure of defence against the whirlwind of money that swirls around it. It makes it harder to sell out, because it makes it harder to do anything reckless.”
I look forward to reading another response from you after you start to consider the case for PR.