Sunday, 15 August 2021

A villain in the constitution

103 years ago, Parliament enacted the Representation of the People Act 1918.  The Act extended the franchise in Parliamentary elections to men over age 21, whether or not they owned property, and to women aged over 30 who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with rateable value of £5 or above, or whose husbands did.

The Act (section 20) also contained provision for Commissioners to prepare a scheme under which "as nearly as possible one hundred members shall be elected to the House of Commons at a general election on the principle of proportional representation ..."  A single transferable vote system was envisaged. In the event, the scheme was never set up and, ever since, the UK has continued with "first past the post" (FPTP) elections for the House of Commons.

First past the post undoubtedly has its supporters particularly in those political parties who usually tend to do well as a result. But the system does not produce a House of Commons which is truly representative of the votes cast by the electorate as a whole. - see Electoral Reform Society.

In 1997, the Labour Party under Tony Blair won a majority of 179 on 43.2% of the votes cast. With a turnout of 71.4 that amounted to 30.8% of the electorate voting for Labour.

In 2019, the Conservative Party secured a majority of 80 on 43.6% of the votes cast. The turnout was 67.3% and thus 29.3% of the electorate supported the Conservatives.

Interestingly, from 1945, no political party has secured over 50% of the votes cast although, in 1955, the Conservatives came close with 49.7% (turnout 76.8%). A further fact is that the turnout of voters has been under 70% in  every election since 1997. (Voting in the UK is not compulsory).

The leader of a party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons will be invited by the Queen to become Prime Minister and to form a government.

The government is then able to command all the legislative power available under a system in which there are no legal limits on the laws Parliament may enact. (Technically the Queen in Parliament has Legislative Supremacy).

In 2015, the Conservative Party (under David Cameron) won the election on 36.9% of the vote with a 66.1% turnout. That amounted to 24.39% of the total UK electorate. The party then proceeded to launch the EU referendum (legislated for in 2015 and held in June 2016).  

The highly complex issue of Brexit was reduced to a binary in or out vote with a simple majority to carry the day. Prior to the referendum, there was no "Brexit plan" presented to the people even though Brexit could have taken many different forms. Furthermore, the Referendum legislation did not impose a requirement for each of the constituent nations forming the UK to vote in favour. "Leave" secured 51.89% of the turnout which was 72.21%.  That amounted to 37.47% of the electorate in favour of Leave. Notably, Scotland and Northern Ireland rejected Brexit but then had it imposed on them.

The 2019 general election gave the Conservatives (under Boris Johnson) 43.6% of the vote on a turnout of 67.3%. They obtained an 80 seat majority based on the votes of 29.34% of the electorate. On that basis the government is pursuing reform of the law in areas such as the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament, Judicial Review, and Public Protest. The first two of those measures will increase executive power and the third will make those citizens who choose to protest much more likely to end up with a criminal conviction (see The Guardian 9 August 2021).. 

The constitutional arrangements of the UK contain many villains" but if I had to select the "arch-villain" it would be first past the post. The voting system lies at the very heart of democracy and the presence of first past the post has been tolerated far too long for any good it is doing.


15 August 2021

No comments:

Post a Comment