As someone who worked on the AV referendum campaign and for the Electoral Reform Society, I don’t write this article lightly. I have been on the coalface of attempts to change the voting system in this country on more than one occasion. But for some time now I’ve known something and been looking for the right way to say it: I actually think First Past the Post, the supposed “archaic” voting system we use for Westminster elections and local elections in England and Wales, is pretty good and is in some ways even the best system to use in many instances.
Let me back up a little here: I still believe that some sort of proportional system would be better to use in local elections in England and Wales. It’s used in Scotland, and I think has been pretty effective with no real downsides (unless you’re a Labour supporter and think that continuing to ignore of a huge chunk of Nationalist votes at local level would have prevented last May’s SNP deluge). I also think it would be good if we had a PR system at local level in England Wales given this: we want to devolve more things to a local government level. Great, I’m all for that. But under FPTP we often end up with one party states, places where Labour, the Tories (even the Lib Dems) end up with either 100% of the seats or thereabouts, on sometimes as low as half the vote. I think if we want local government to work effectively, we need decent oppositions in the cities – PR is the only way to get this withou a massive overhaul of the whole system (and even then, you’d probably still need a PR voting system).
But at Westminster, I actually think First Past the Post has definite advantages. Relevant to the age we live in, it keeps extremism at bay. Some electoral reformers talk endlessly about how the Tories got a majority with only 37% of the vote. Yet, if we’d had a proportional system in place, the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition, which would have had just over 50% of the nationwide vote together. I don’t see that as a step up myself, and many centre-left voters who automatically see PR as more progressive should have a long, hard think about DPM Farage.
Another problem is that PR for Westminster can just sound like sour grapes. For instance, Caroline Lucas always going on about the Westminster voting system being “broken” or some other pejorative term. It feels a bit like, sorry to say, the Greens couldn’t break through under FPTP so now it’s time for a new voting system that will help them do better. Or then she talks about a Labour/Lib Dem/Green alliance. Putting aside the political realities standing in the way of that – if you want a “progressive majority” so badly, why don’t you just join Labour and fight for stuff inside of that party? In other words, if you like Corbyn so much, just go for it, Caroline – let’s look at the recent experience of coalition in Britain.
The last coalition may not have been to some tastes, but it was stable and it was effective at getting legislation passed. The Lib Dems thought if coalition could be shown to be functional over the course of a five year parliament, enough people would vote Lib Dem again in order to have another pluralist government. The Lib Dems were wrong about this, as May 2015 showed. And you can go on and on about tuition fees and what you see as the betrayals of the Lib Dems in government – you are only proving my point. The British people, and most pronouncedly in some ways now, those on the Left in Britain, are not prepared to accept coalition government. Given PR is almost guaranteed to produce coalition government in most instances, FPTP is the only way to go at Westminster level until the British public finds itself in love with coalitions (i.e. never).
Of course, it would be nice if we could have a grown up conversation about all of this. One where we could just admit that FPTP is necessary at Westminster level but all wrong for local government. Perhaps that’s the conversation I’m trying to start here.