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It’s time to make all votes count

Voters head to polls for the December 2019 general election - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

I don’t know about you, but I rather miss being bored by British politics.

For the last couple of decades, I’ve been obsessively following American political developments; in fact, for much of the early part of the period I paid rather more attention to events across the pond than to what was happening over here.

That wasn’t entirely unreasonable or negligent of me, I’d suggest; as we’ve discovered over the last 20 years or so, when America soils the sheets, everyone gets stuck with the cleaning bill, so it makes sense to at least keep tabs on what they’re up to.

It’s also fair to acknowledge that politics in America tends to play out at a rather more theatrical level than elsewhere; it’s just plain easier to get interested in the high octane soap opera of Washington than in the altogether more sclerotic grindings of our own body politic.

Or at least that used to be the case until about five years ago, when our own political narrative took a turn for the screechingly melodramatic and has remained there (no pun intended) ever since. As I said at the top of the piece, I sometimes pine for the days of bureaucratic tedium.

It’s now easier than ever to draw parallels – generally pretty disturbing parallels – between the state of politics in the US and UK, but the other day I think I may have stumbled across a new one…

It’s occurred to me that proportional representation occupies the same place in the British political mindset that nationalised healthcare holds in the American political mindset. It’s something almost every comparable nation has; it works pretty damn well more or less everywhere it’s been instituted; it brings manifest benefits to those nations and the people of those nations are extremely happy with it; but it WOULDN’T WORK HERE, because it’s weird, and foreign, and foreign and weird, and just… urgh, no.

I read this week that a group of Labour MPs is trying to persuade Keir Starmer to make electoral reform (and the introduction of some form of PR) a campaign platform. PR has always been a difficult pill to get the Labour Party to swallow, as any attempt to endorse it by a major party will eagerly be seized upon by the other side as an admission that that party knows it can’t win under first-past-the-post.

The thing is, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, right now Labour, for all that it’s eating away at the Conservatives’ poll lead, almost certainly can’t win under FPTP any more, not since it lost Scotland to the SNP. (And the very fact that until recently the Conservatives were still ahead in the polls, for all the spectacular array of dogs’ breakfasts they’re making of everything they touch at the moment, should tell Labour everything it needs to know.)

If Starmerism has yet to define itself as anything other than ‘Not Corbynism’ then embracing the ability to acknowledge and address data rather than ‘feels’ would be a good way of distinguishing itself from the previous regime.

Because let’s face it, the case against FPTP is obvious. In a general election, there’s usually about a two-thirds turnout and the winning party generally gets about 45% of the votes cast, or about 30% of the available votes (there’s a bit of variation from one election to the next but not as much as you’d think).

This means that at any given time 70% of the electorate is living under a government they either failed to support or actively opposed. However you slice it, that can’t be right.

The case in favour of FPTP, by contrast, is basically “Ha ha, we won, you lost”. And this has always been the problem; any party in a position to reform FPTP has, by definition, just benefited from it, so why would they?

Moreover, all the things that FPTP supposedly protects the UK from, all those things we’ve sneeringly pointed to in our European neighbours’ parliaments – weak minority governments! Flaky coalitions! Parties paralysed by factional infighting! Elections every two years! – it has utterly failed to protect us from for the last decade.

So we’re stuck with a system that produces weak governments and allows them to gain absolute power with 30% support. Well done us.

But, like I said earlier, there doesn’t need to be a case in favour of FPTP because it’s the status quo; nobody is (currently) mounting a serious challenge to it, and PR is urgh, weird, foreign.

Maybe it’s going to be a branding exercise, as so much is these days. Back in 2011, the Lib Dems succeeded in getting a referendum on the ‘alternative vote’ reform, which was roundly rejected. That word ‘alternative’ was a mistake. To the ears of the people whose minds you’re trying to change, ‘alternative’ says ‘unnecessary change’ and ‘weird’.

Call it ‘Make All Votes Count’ and see what happens.