It is seldom enough that I find myself in accord with the Liberal Democrats, but when it comes to the concept of fundamental reform of our electoral system, I think there is much common ground between that party and UKIP.
Many would say that all the small parties would agree that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system unfairly disadvantages them, makes it difficult for them to break into mainstream politics and generally favours the “big two” parties in solidifying their lock on power. And they are right – this is completely true, but these factors represent at best only part of the argument.
While I am sure some small parties complain about the inequities of FPTP due to the enormous barrier it represents to attaining political influence and office at the highest levels, I would like to suggest that in UKIP’s case the opposition is rooted in something more fundamental – respect for the basic principles of democracy and a high level of trust placed in the electorate.
FPTP is an historical anachronism, delivering a “representative” parliament that was arguably suitable for purpose two hundred years ago when communication speeds were slow and a limited portion of the populace had the right to vote. As a system of delivering democratic representation in the 21st century, it fails miserably.
Aside from the fact that parties like UKIP, the Greens and even the Liberal Democrats fail to return MPs to Westminster in the numbers that their portion of the vote share dictate due to the unfairness of the system, the FPTP system also fails millions of tribal “big two” voters as well. Our current system sees governments formed based on the electoral results in a relatively small number of “marginal” seats and a relatively small number of “swing” voters. It totally disenfranchises those who are in “safe” seats who vote for parties that are not well represented in their areas – such as Labour voters in the Southern English shires and Conservative voters in Northern cities or Scotland.
Do these people not deserve to have their vote mean something? Do they not deserve to have their voices and beliefs represented in parliament? The current system answers those questions with a shrug of indifference, making the vote of millions of people utterly irrelevant. This is a large portion of the reason why there is such a damningly high level of voter apathy in this country – thanks to generations of precedent people are well aware of the fact that their votes do not mean much unless they live in very specific areas.
But what to replace FPTP with? The short, easy answer is “full proportional representation”. What is not so easy is what exact form this should take, and I do not have a definitive answer. On a personal level, I favour the German federal PR system. It is not perfect, but coupled with a Swiss style commitment to direct democracy through referenda, I think it would work.
The question that supporters of FPTP usually ask at this point in the argument is “Won’t this simply deliver endless coalition governments?” Yes. Yes it will – but so what? We are already in the situation where it is highly likely that we are looking at decades of Liberal Democrat involvement in one coalition or another – the time of easy majorities in British politics is long past. This threat of perpetual Liberal Democrat influence in government is of itself a clear argument for proportional representation – far better for people decide the make-up of the coalition which governs them than have a coalition including the Liberal Democrats forced upon them.
One interesting side-effect of proportional representation would be the very likely break-up of the “broad church” old parties, with splits along ideological lines, such as Labour splitting into union-controlled socialists and middle-class social democrats, or the Conservatives into traditional conservatives and the social democrat “modernisers”. This would give people even more control over what they vote for since the party which secures your vote would not have to obfuscate what it stands for to placate internal party factions or seek voter demographics that are not naturally “theirs”.
At the moment this debate is purely academic since the Liberal Democrats squandered the chance for a step in the right direction during the AV vote (a poor alternative but better than FPTP). I do not think the debate will or can remain academic though – it is a good possibility that UKIP will receive more votes in the next General Election than the Liberal Democrats, but will return far-fewer MPs (and possibly none, although I think that unlikely in the extreme) than them. Even if UKIP’s share of the vote remains under 10% (another extremely unlikely scenario), you will be talking about around 3 million voters who have been effectively disenfranchised by FPTP – arguing in favour of the suitability and democratic legitimacy of FPTP at the point will be impossible.
Barry Cooper is a South East MEP candidate for UKIP. He tweets at @Waddesdonbaz
Do you agree that we need to move to proportional representation? Here at UKIP Daily we like a friendly debate, so if you’re in favour of keeping first past the post and would like to tell us why, email Donna@ukipdaily.com.