82. Letter to a Labour MP: Fair Voting is long overdue

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

29 August 2022

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Is the ’Mother of Parliaments’ still fit for purpose? photo: author

The UK is the only major European democracy that relies on First Past the Post. Time for a change, and Labour really needs to take a lead.

Dear Richard,

I am writing to you because I hope that you will accept the overwhelming case for reform of the electoral system, and will do all you can to support it at the Labour Conference in September.

As you will be well aware, at Last year’s Conference a motion supporting the dropping of the outdated First Past The Post system gained support from 80% of members, and if anything this will have increased since. Furthermore, many unions who were opposed or unsure at that time, including the largest, Unison, have now given unequivocal support to electoral reform. It seems likely that, with the support of the leadership, a motion on electoral reform would succeed. We would argue that this would be an extremely good thing.

The imbalance between vote share and seats won, UK general election 2019

The UK is almost unique in Europe in using a First Past The Post system. There is good reason for this. The only other country of any significance to use it is Belarus, which as we all know is a dictatorship whose rulers have little respect for democratic values or human rights.

It has always been possible in the UK under FPTP for a party to achieve power with only minority support. Had that not been the case, we would perhaps not have a position where one party, the Conservative Party, had been in power for 64 of the last 100 years. Notoriously, the party won an 80 seat majority and 56.2% of the seats in 2019 despite having only 43.6% of the popular vote. The 56.4% of the population who made a positive choice to vote against the conservatives have every reason to feel disenfranchised. The Tories have gone on to use their majority to push through repressive and undemocratic legislation, indeed to undermine the electoral process itself.

FPTP tends to favour the Conservatives at the expense of smaller parties with UK-wide distribution, eg LibDems & Greens (UK GE 2019)

Furthermore, as the system stands, the outcome is highly dependent on vote distribution. Because of this the Conservatives would achieve a larger percentage of the seats even if the votes cast for the two main parties were equal. With the forthcoming redrawing of the constituency boundaries this can only be made worse. In 2019 it took 38,264 voters to elect a single Conservative MP and 50,837 voters to elect a Labour MP. At the extremes, electing a single Green MP required 866,435 votes, while, solely for distributional reasons, it took only 25,883 to elect an SNP MP.

No wonder therefore that the Tories are pleased with First Past The Post and indeed they have now, in the Election Act, extended it to mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections, with no rational justification other than that it will serve their own party political goals.

Even more important than this, not only is first past the post a disservice to the Labour Party and to the smaller parties but it is a profound disservice to the voter. General elections are in effect only fought in marginal constituencies. There are many constituencies in the Home Counties who have never elected anything other than a Conservative MP and where in fact nothing more than a blue rosette is required for victory. Voters in such constituencies know that their vote will not count and they are effectively excluded from the democratic process. This can potentially leave many believing that the only way to be heard is by extraparliamentary action. It simply is not true that governments are held accountable by the will of the electorate: they are held accountable only by the will of a small minority. Any system of proportional representation would ensure that every voter’s wishes would at some point be taken into account.

Perhaps from a party political perspective the strongest indictment of first past the post is that none of the major parties use it for electing their own leader. Your own party uses the alternative vote system, the Liberal Democrats use the single transferable vote and even the Conservatives, who relish the benefits of FPTP in national elections, do not use it in their own internal ones, preferring the elimination system which we have just witnessed.

The UK claims to be the mother of all democracies. The downside of this is it goes hand in hand with nostalgia for a system which has long been outdated, while at the same time other countries around the world have progressed and left us standing.

We very much hope that you and your colleagues in the party will wake up to the importance of this issue and the potential to benefit both your own party and the country by taking a clear stand in favour of electoral reform.


The views stated here are not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe. This article previously appeared in West England Bylines.

See also Philip Cole’s recent article on PR.

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