The Conservative Case for Proportional Representation

By Matt Gillow

Typically, electoral reform is not the prerogative of Conservatives. The mere threat of it was nearly a deal breaker during the 2010 coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats, and Cameron’s crack negotiating team were only leveraged into accepting a referendum on the Alternative Vote by the threat of letting Gordon Brown slink back into Downing Street.

The current First Past the Post system fits in well with the ‘strong and stable’ narrative. It bars smaller parties from power, typically prevents coalition, and is pretty easy to understand. These are all good things, right?

Wrong. And that’s from a Conservative point of view.

It’s not a major revelation that voting reform actually fits in comfortably with Conservative principles, but it’s a notion that is typically whispered. In his fantastic book ‘Coalition’, David Laws notes that neither David Cameron or George Osborne were particularly in favour of First Past the Post. During the 2015 general election campaign, MEP Daniel Hannan came out strongly as an advocate for Proportional Representation. It’s not, even, a recent phenomenon – Winston Churchill noted that ‘the present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any Party, nor any section of the community.’ So there we go.

It’s not even as if First Past the Post is a particularly good system for the Conservative Party. Not only has it failed to produce stable government in two of the last three elections, it consigns some Conservative voters in ‘electoral deserts’ such as Scotland (traditionally) to zero representation whatsoever. Under FPTP, under-represented Conservative voters fail to see their views and concerns acted on locally – and the same goes for Labour voters in the South-East, for example.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for Conservatives to actually apply Conservative principles to our electoral system. Imagine two companies consolidating a duopoly over air travel, for example. Would we look the other way, and consider it no harm done? The answer is no. If we wouldn’t tolerate duopolies in the economy for the sake of fair competition and choice, we shouldn’t accept it in our electoral system. The Conservative Action for Electoral Reform campaign group states on its website: ‘we need an electoral system that can reflect changes in public opinion as effectively as the free market can adapt to changing economic circumstances.’

The real kicker is that the Conservative-Labour duopoly isn’t even a ‘natural’ one; the government essentially ‘subsidises’ the two giants with the market distorting effects of First Past the Post. In the 1955 general election, Labour and the Conservatives shared over 96% of the vote between them and won almost 99% of seats. By 2010, the two parties’ combined vote share had fallen to 65%, but thanks to the market intervention of First Past the Post, they still held onto 87% of seats.

 The difference between the green line and the red line indicates the artificial subsidy given by First Past the Post to Labour-Conservative duopoly.

The difference between the green line and the red line indicates the artificial subsidy given by First Past the Post to Labour-Conservative duopoly.

Only by breaking up the Labour/Conservative duopoly over British politics can we foster true competition in our democracy – giving smaller parties a voice and forcing the two major parties to adapt and improve in order to beat the competition. We know full well that competition drives up standards and drives down undesirable practices – to fail to apply that knowledge to our electoral system comes across as self-serving and ignorant.

In his aforementioned piece, Daniel Hannan argues that change is coming, and to refuse to take ownership of that change is politically naïve. Benjamin Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act is one such example of Conservatives embracing electoral change. It didn’t backfire then, and it won’t backfire now. Electoral reform means competition, choice, and real, proper democracy – views that Conservatives have always championed.