The acquittal of the former president has exposed flaws in the first past the post system that are just as relevant in Britain.
The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump, though expected, has thrown up some uncomfortable questions for democratic countries where representatives are elected under a majoritarian system.
It is now becoming very apparent that unelected, self-selecting supporters and members of the major political parties have the ultimate power over the so-called democratic process when it comes to first past the post.
It was Trump supporters, his base as the commentators like to call them, who stormed the Capitol. It is that same base who will decide, via the American system of primaries, who sits in the United States Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Although the organisation of primaries varies state by state – from completely open ones to others that are semi-closed or completely closed, to private caucuses – the common factor is that it is the candidate’s base which will determine the outcome.
Without a strong base the candidate will not be chosen. The one who does make it will be beholden to those who selected her or him. This is the overriding reason why only seven Republican senators voted to find Donald Trump guilty. Most of the other 43 feared their seats would be threatened if they upset their supporters. While the focus is currently on the Republicans, it is exactly the same for the Democrats.
This principle also applies in the United Kingdom for the Labour and Conservative parties. Parliamentary candidates are chosen by local Conservative Associations or Constituency Labour Parties. The leaders of both parties are chosen by members of the party, albeit in the case of the Conservatives with significant screening by Members of Parliament. This screening is, however, of limited value as the MPs themselves are chosen by the local parties.
The reason this matters is that under first past the post, the candidates selected by the candidate’s base or, in the case of the UK, by members of the political parties will, in seats which can generally be identified as winnable, go on to be elected to the legislature. By its nature first past the post only allows a few seats to change hands.
In Britain, even when a political party wins by a landslide, the number of seats which change hands is small – only 79 out of the 650 Commons constituencies had an MP from a different party in 2019 when the Conservatives achieved a majority of 80.
Conservative and Labour members effectively decide who gets on in British politics. Far from ensuring a thriving democracy, this has caused untold problems. Political parties, both Conservative and Labour, at local level are wide open to being manipulated by those with a particular point of view.
It is unlikely Theresa May would have tried to take the UK out of the EU single market and customs union had it not been for the Conservative Associations who demanded this. Labour would almost certainly not have espoused its convoluted policy during the EU referendum campaign if party members had not had such a high level of influence at the time.
The point is not that members of political parties should be supine and do what their leaderships require. The real nub of the matter is first past the post. A majoritarian system requires broad-based political parties.
Such parties may work where large and representative parts of the country are engaged with the political process. Sadly, that is not the case. Politics is very much the sport of a tiny minority, which means the door is wide open for those with strong views who are willing to work the system.
In this way, they are able to take over at local and then at national level. UKIP managed to ‘infiltrate’ the Conservatives to secure the referendum on the EU. The hard left did the same to get Jeremy Corbyn elected leader.
A proportional system, on the other hand, requires many political parties. Those on the extremes will join the party which best reflects their views while those with more moderate views will join another party.
Party leaders, even when they are elected by members of the party, will reflect the whole of their party not just one faction. This is exactly what happens across Europe both within and outside the European Union where every country, with the possible exception of France, has a system of proportional representation.
The first past the post system is a hang-over from the British empire. In addition to the United States, the others who share this legacy are India, Canada and a handful of Caribbean and African states. Now that both the Conservatives and the Labour Party are talking about constitutional reform, the United Kingdom, an increasingly fractured entity now alone in the world, must make itself fit for purpose.
Mary Honeyball was a Labour MEP from 2000 to 2019
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