Now the polls say the electorate is split three ways the BBC and the fashionable commentators of the media are out and about saying it’s proof we need a new voting system. We should be nervous about such advice, given its provenance.
First past the post has several advantages.
The first is each area has an individual MP who feels very accountable to that group of voters. The reason most MPs work long and anti social hours and at week-ends, unlike most of the public sector, is they wish to respond to the demands of their constituents. They know their constituents can sack them if they do not do a good job. Any system of voting which breaks the link between constituency and individual member will undermine that accountability and the service that comes from it.
The related point is that each town or rural area has an MP voice in Parliament, with a duty to speak up for them, and to act as an adviser and arbitrator in local matters. Any proportional system that relies on a national list to select MPs would lose both these characteristics of the current system.
The third point is First Past the Post gives an MP more independence against the party whips and national party than a list system. When I decided to resign from a Conservative government as part of my campaigns to save the pound and to lower taxes I checked first with my local party bosses who were supportive. They were the people who had the power to back me or sack me. If I had needed the support of the national party to remain as an MP and to become a Conservative candidate again, resignation may well have ended my campaign as it could have ended my time as an MP. The national party need not take a rebel seriously if they can sack him.
The fourth point is that First past the post usually results in a majority party, which allows a government to be formed which has the power to stick to the manifesto it offered the people. PR systems usually prevent any one party having a majority. This means that all parties immediately the election result is known have to dump their promises to the electorate and get down to bargaining with each other, usually behind closed doors, to cobble together a government and a programme which might survive.This tends to exclude the electorate and makes people more cynical about politics and politicians, as people do not get what they voted for from any of them.
What some dislike about First past the post is MPs and candidates with strong views have to compromise with others to form an overall party position. Some see this as weak or dishonest. Others see this is the necessary compromises needed to run a civilised democracy, where voters disagree about what they want.The upside is it avoids extremists being elected to Parliament – the UK Parliamentary electorate does not elect BNP or Communist MPs. Sensible people recognise that all the main parties in our system are coalitions with argument within the parties about how far the common position should go in different directions.
At the moment people with very strong views have three choices in the UK. They can join a main party most likely to be sympathetic to their cause and fight for it from within. They can join a fringe party that mainly figths on a single issue to keep that issue alive in public debate, in the knowledge they are unlikely ever to get an MP elected. Or they can join or form a protest group and lobby institution, rasing money to keep the issue alive and to promote it. There is a role for all three.
Under PR the same is true, but the balance of advantage different. There is more point in joining or forming new parties, as they can get someone elected. There is less point influencing a main party, as each of the main parties is less likely to form a majority government able to do things. It may be easier to influence a main party by having MPs in a hung Parliament.
There are pluses and minuses to each system. I am far from happy that the First Past the Post system has stopped the Eurosceptic majority getting what it wants for the last 13 years. I did not enjoy losing the votes against Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon each time, when I knew my party’s votes were the view of the majority of the Brtish people. There is absolutely no evidence that a PR system would deliver us strong government, or government that wanted to do what the public wants.
Promoted by Christine Hill on behalf of John Redwood, both of 30 Rose Street Wokingham RG40 1XU