Obstructing electoral reform: Keir Starmer’s misguided party betrayal or well-judged decision?

The UK is currently in a situation where the prime minister was not elected by the entire British public in a general election. Due to the unusual circumstances of Boris Johnson’s resignation, only Conservative party members participated in the election of Liz Truss. This has been followed by low levels of support for Liz Truss, with Greenpeace protesters interrupting the prime minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference to display a sign which read “who voted for this?”.

However, even the UK’s commonplace method of electing a Prime Minister through a general election is not free from controversy due to the heavily debated electoral system. Should we replace this system?

The labour party has overwhelmingly voted to back a motion to make a commitment within the Labour manifesto to electoral reform, overturning the UK’s current first past the post system. This vote took place at the 2022 Annual Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, which occurred at the end of last month. This would involve replacing the current system with a system of proportional representation, such as Single Transferable Vote which is used to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Nationally, Labour supporters also overwhelmingly support this move, with 61% favouring reform according to the recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. However, the motion cannot go any further without the support of party leader Keir Starmer who had already firmly ruled out a commitment to electoral reform.

Did Keir Starmer make a mistake when he chose to rule out electoral reform, or was he right to oppose the opinion of the majority within his party?

Proportional systems elect a government which more closely represents the opinions of the electorate. There is a tight correlation between the proportion of MPs elected from each party and the votes cast. In turn, this gives a Prime Minister who is head of a government elected more directly in accordance with the views of the electorate. This is clearly a more desirable situation than that of the current First Past the Post System which elects a government with a much looser correlation to the proportion of votes cast to each party. Hence, it is clear to see why there is such a large amount of public and party support to discard the current system in favour of something more representative, under the belief that this would strengthen our democracy.

Green party MP and advocate for electoral reform Caroline Lucas showed her support for the motion on Twitter. She wrote that “@Keir_Starmer has his fingers in his ears” over his refusal to support the move to proportional representation, believing that he should honour the people’s wishes for a system that gives them a stronger political voice.

However, this issue is not simple. There are other things to consider when deciding whether to enact electoral reform, and therefore Keir Starmer made the correct choice in ruling out electoral reform during our current political climate.

First Past the Post tends to award a ‘bonus’ seats to the majority parties in general elections, giving them an advantage and acting to the detriment of smaller parties. Although this produces a less representative government, it also means that the system has a trend of producing strong and stable majority governments. This is valuable as it reduces conflict within parliament and gives a greater chance of passing motions.

In contrast, proportional systems present an increased risk of instability, with a greater tendency to produce hung parliaments and weak governments. Furthermore, elections that use proportional systems, such as the Party List system, more often elect MPs regionally, rather than electing MPs which link to a small area and section of the public within their constituency. This means that the public will lose the reassurance of a direct link to parliament through their MP provided by the current system. They would also lose the benefits of having a representative who is responsible for the issues and demands specific to their area. Instead, people would have to rely on MPs who focus on wider areas, and this comes with the risk of small groups and concerns being forgotten or ignored.

Therefore, in the current political climate of instability, prime ministerial resignations, government U-turns, economic crisis and international wars, Keir Starmer was correct in his choice to rule out a commitment to electoral reform in the Labour manifesto. This is not to say that a move to proportional representation should never occur, as it would be beneficial to our democracy if enacted at the right time. But at the current moment the public are looking to their government for reassurance and stability, which electoral reform would not bring.

Image: Element5 Digital on Unsplash 

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