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Lord Norton: The case for First Past The Post

Lord_norton Lord Norton of Louth, a Professor of Government at Hull University, is a former Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution and a blogger.

Fundamental to any representative democracy is the concept of accountability. Our electoral system facilitates but does not guarantee the return of a single-party government. The winning party has a coherent programme of public policy that it put before the electors and for which it can be held to account at the next election.

There is one body – the party in government – that is responsible for public policy. There is no scope for buck-passing or shirking of responsibility. Electors can judge it in terms of what it promised – the manifesto is a benchmark – and if dissatisfied can sweep it from office. Critics focus on the hiring element of the process, but – as the distinguished philosopher Sir Karl Popper noted – tend to ignore the firing part. There is, in our system, a fundamental accountability that is lacking in alternative systems.

The electoral system does not guarantee single-party government. It can on occasion result in a hung Parliament, as we are presently experiencing. However, this is the exception and not the rule. Under alternative systems, it is likely to be the rule. Current experience points to the inherent problems of the alternatives.

Alex Salmond has referred to a hung Parliament as a ‘people’s Parliament’. It is the opposite: it is a politician’s parliament. Policy is the result of post-election bargaining. The people do not get a look in. Compromises are reached which may bear no relationship to what electors want, which were never placed before them, and which they may have no opportunity to pass judgement on at the next election if parties stand as independent entities: there is no one body to call to account.

The principal argument against the present system is that it is not fair – it is not a proportional system. However, proportional representation is a narrow concept. The ‘proportionality’ relates only to the relationship of votes to seats and not to the proportionality of power. Under PR, 10% of the votes are designed to produce 10% of the seats, but not necessarily 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. Indeed, a party with 10% of the seats may be in a position to wield disproportionate negotiating power.

We see that in the current exceptional circumstances. Only one in five people who went to the polls voted for the Liberal Democrats, yet the Liberal Democrats are now calling the tune in determining the shape of the government of the United Kingdom. Under PR, this situation is likely to be a permanent feature. If proportionality is defined in terms of the ratio of votes gained to time spent in Westminster, the UK system has proved more proportional than many other major Western systems.

PR systems, contrary to claims made for them, do not necessarily produce governments that have the support of a majority of electors. If party A gains 30% of the votes and party B 25%, a post-election coalition of A+B does not enjoy the support of 55% of electors. It enjoys the definitive support of no electors, as no elector has been presented with the opportunity to vote for A+B. Wales provides a good example.  The National Assembly for Wales is governed by a Labour/Paid Cymru coalition. No Welsh elector in 2007 was offered the opportunity to vote for Labour + Plaid Cymru – and it is unlikely that many voted Labour on the assumption that a Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition was a likely outcome if no party achieved an overall majority.

Proportional representation is a generic term for a large number of electoral systems. Once one examines the particular systems on offer one recognises the significant defects of each. Some exclude a constituency link, some enhance party control of candidatures, and some encourage excessive localism and a desire to do favours for electors. This could explain why first-past-the-post is the single most used electoral system.  Over 60 countries, with almost half of the world’s electors, employ first-past-the-post.  Only 0.5% of electors vote using the Alternative Vote (AV) and only 0.1% by the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  The Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) devised by the Jenkins Commission is not used in any country. 

No electoral system is perfect, but the first-past-the-post system has a number of attributes which, in combination, cannot be matched by any of the alternatives. It is worth fighting for. The first thing to do in any debate about PR is to demand that advocates stop talking about ‘PR’ as if it is a specific alternative and instead require them to specify the particular system they favour (STV, AMS, regional list, AV+). Once one starts to compare first-past-the-post to a specific alternative, one begins to recognise the benefits of retaining our current electoral system.


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