Britain – with France – is one of the few major countries in Europe where parliamentary seats won at a general election are not shared out between the parties in a proportional manner. Any vote not used to win a seat is, in effect, wasted. “First past the post” does offer ideological clarity and accountability. But this is at the expense of representation. All this contributes to the cynicism and disaffection felt for politics, and a dangerous sense that British voters have too little sway over those who govern them.
Brexit was built on such discontents and there is widespread agreement that, in the future, power ought to be redistributed more fairly. The question is less what to do than how to do it. To build a better society we need a better politics. The present electoral system shows no sign of delivering this. Instead it reinforces a Labour-Tory duopoly, shuts out smaller parties and rewards nationalist ones – because votes piled up in one area are easier to convert into seats than those that are thinly spread.
This is not just a matter of disproportionate outcomes, it is also a matter of disproportionate power to factions within parties that win. Most people voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in the last general election. Yet a little more than 40% of the votes gave the Tories an apparent impregnable parliamentary majority and handed Boris Johnson’s “hard Brexit” clique absolute control of policy. As loyalty to Mr Johnson rather than ability is the critical qualification for high office, it is no surprise that Britain has the wrong government for the Covid-19 crisis.
When running to be Labour leader, Keir Starmer committed to a constitutional convention and to look at reform of the voting system. He was responding to the groundswell of support in the Labour membership for a more proportional way of electing MPs after December’s election defeat. However, Labour has long been divided on electoral reform. On Monday the party’s consultation about how to proceed with constitutional change will close, but it seems to have largely sidestepped the issue of the way votes translate into seats. Instead the consultation focused on how federalism could counter the damage wrought by the centralising nature of the British state.
Devolving power to the regions is an important and urgent issue. But Sir Keir should put electoral reform back on to the table. A proportional system of voting would unlock different institutions and cultures in British political life. It is true that less than a decade ago reformers lost a referendum on whether to change the voting system for British general elections. But governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all elected on versions of proportional representation (PR). Even Labour’s national executive committee, which oversees party policy, will hold elections using a form of PR.
Political parties that win power may be reluctant to change the voting system to which they owe their success. However, British democracy will not be repaired until the voting system is made genuinely more proportional. Mr Johnson did set up a “constitution, democracy and rights” commission that could have examined electoral shortcomings. But it seems designed, unfortunately, to avenge the slights Brexiters think they suffered at the hands of a remain establishment. It has also disappeared from view. For Labour the modernising years of 1997 until 2010 remain unfinished business. Sir Keir may wish to wait and see where the government is going before making his move. But without some sort of electoral reform that engages the public, the pressure to mend a broken system may blow up politics once more.
• This article was amended on 20 July 2020 to remove a reference to Britain being “the only major country in Europe” without a form of proportional parliamentary representation.