Time to ditch outdated voting system

As Tories draw from US Republican playbook, Cat Smith counters with her bill to adopt PR

On 29 November, I presented a bill to Parliament to introduce a system of proportional representation for parliamentary elections, for elections for directly elected mayors in England, for local authority elections in England, and for police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales.

Because of the structures of the UK Parliament, the Government controls time for legislation; therefore, without a Labour Government, I am going to struggle to get time allocated for my bill to progress to becoming a change in the law. Indeed, any non-Conservative MP finds this near impossible. I would like to stress, therefore, that the nature of our parliamentary system is such that this bill stands no chance of becoming law and, indeed, I do not expect it to even be debated further in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, I do intend to have a full bill drafted in the coming weeks, and I hope this will help to draw attention to our outdated voting system and the need for change. This will both highlight the problems with Parliament and with our outdated voting system. 

Our current first-past-the-post voting system was designed for a time when parliamentary constituencies usually only had two candidates, the franchise excluded women completely, and only one in five men were entitled to a vote. Thankfully, we now live in a more enlightened time, and with the expanded franchise, we have also seen an increase in the number of political parties that are likely to contest an election. 

So it is time that our voting system reflects this. The last Labour government helped us take a huge step in the right direction with devolution in Scotland, Wales and in London with the London Assembly – all of which were devised with systems of proportional representation. Two decades on, we have been reminded that progress is not inevitable. 

In the Elections Act passed by the Tories last year, the requirements for showing photo ID to vote grabbed the headlines – not unjustifiably, given this comes straight from the US Republican playbook on voter suppression. However, the legislation also rolls back the progressive voting systems for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and for the elected mayors too. The next time you get the chance to vote in one of these elections, you will find your ballot paper asks for you to place a cross in one box – gone has the supplementary vote.

Why do the Tories want to roll back progress and try to make all elections first-past-the-post? Simple. They think this will increase their chances of winning. 

False flags about voters finding other systems complicated are a nonsense when they’ve been using them for the past few elections. Where I am in Lancashire, the only times I have got the opportunity to use a system that wasn’t first-past-the-post were the three elections we have had for police and crime commissioner, and anecdotally, people are pleased to be given the opportunity to vote for the eventual winner. It removes the pressure for voters to vote for Candidate A in order to stop Candidate B even though they feel that Candidate C would most closely share their values. They could simply vote Candidate C first and transfer to Candidate A. 

I was recently chewing the fat with a comrade from the Irish Labour Party where they need to win second preferences from other parties. I realised that a change of voting system wouldn’t just be better for voters but also for politics. 

There is plenty written about the toxicity of politics, the dirty tactics and abuse faced by candidates (especially women and minority ethnic candidates), so I won’t rehash them here. But if you are trying to win second preferences from your opponent’s voters, that surely at the very least encourages you to speak civilly about your opponent. Ideally, it might even see you drawing the similarities that you share with them in order to reassure the voter that you are worthy of their second preference. 

So, for the sake of making votes matter, fairer and for an attempt to make the kinder, gentler politics we strive for, I think it’s time to say goodbye to first-past-the-post. I am open-minded as to which system of proportional representation we have; that should probably be nailed down by a people’s assembly or civic jury. Let the voters in to reform our voting system, making it fit for the 21st century. 


  1. You can see why Leftists who want to build support for a party other than Labour favour some version – any version – of PR, so that, say a party pretty close to, say, the Socialist Party (England and Wales) might be funded by, say, a large, non-affiliated trade union not dissimilar to the RMT and gain some seats. I can’t see why anyone who wants this Labour Party to win a decent majority and implement its programme would want PR. On the way, the LibDems and Greens will board the train expecting to get a bigger proportion of Parliamentary seats than they currently do. But let’s face it, those are the real interests behind the current PR campaign. This has nothing to do with “fairness” or constitutional purity.

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