The proposals that threaten to turn back the clock on electoral reform

The publication of the Tory manifesto brought with it a nasty and unexpected surprise. In the past the Conservatives have repeatedly failed to promise to replace our unfair voting system, but this time they went one step further. Not only did they pledge to keep First Past the Post in parliamentary elections; they also promised to extend this electoral system to the few fairer elections we do have. This would be a major step backwards for electoral reform and for democracy as a whole. This policy is unwelcome, unwanted, and most importantly, undemocratic.

The manifesto committed to changing the voting system for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner (PPC) elections from Supplementary Vote (SV) - a preferential system where voters rank their first and second preferences - to First Past the Post. As a result, mayors and PCCs could be elected with a minority percentage of the vote, rather than broad support from the communities they are supposed to represent.

If these changes were made, voters would be forced to choose between voting for the candidate they support and voting against the candidate they do not - which is one of the facets of First Past the Post that makes this system undermine the fairness of elections and the meaningfulness of each individual's vote. Thousands of votes would be wasted, making people feel that their vote doesn’t matter, which could drive down already dwindling turnout.

The Conservatives subsequently confirmed that they also intend to impose First Past the Post on the London Assembly, which currently uses the Additional Member System (AMS) - a mixture of First Past the Post and a closed party list. This would likely eliminate any representatives from smaller parties, depriving the assembly of the political diversity it currently enjoys. What’s more it is likely it would also have negative consequences for gender representation. At present 40% of London Assembly members are women, but if the seats allocated on a proportional basis are removed women account for just 28% of members. This would unquestionably be a major blow for democracy.

These manifesto commitments fly in the face of the trend towards adopting more representative voting systems for new institutions in the UK. Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have successfully conducted elections using AMS since their establishment in 1997. Spurred on by it’s success the Scottish government has also embarked on subsequent electoral reforms, replacing FPTP with Single Transferable Vote (STV) for council elections. The welsh government is also consulting on plans to allow local councils to introduce STV. Whilst the devolved administrations are progressing in the field of democratic reform, the UK government is regressing.

Nobody wants more First Past the Post - particularly not the institutions the Conservatives would be forcing to change. In March this year for example, the London Assembly passed a motion by 16 votes to 5 that ‘proportional representation must not be replaced’. Furthermore, it explicitly defies the mandate provided by Londoners who voted in favour of an assembly elected by the Additional Member System in the 1998 referendum.

There is no public demand for the Conservative’s proposals, which would turn the clock back on progress towards democratic reform. Earlier this year a petition for Proportional Representation got over 100,000 signatures, and you’d be hard pressed to find one calling for more First Past The Post. This policy reflects nothing more than the pet peeve of a handful of old fashioned conservative MPs, rather than a bold approach to moving forward the stalled democratic progress that we see in the UK. It also serves as a reminder that in the fight for democratic reform, nothing can be taken for granted.

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