Durham Union Society’s first ordinary debate of the term saw the House debating whether it believes the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system is now passed its best, and is in need of replacement.
Supporting the motion, the Electoral Reform Society’s Will Brett argued that “disappointment about a weather forecast is the same as what people felt the day after the general election”, claiming that it is not an “accurate” representation. He noted that FPTP is a “voting system from a much simpler time” of two-party politics where ‘‘98% of people would vote for either Labour or Conservative”. Building on this fact, he suggested that the current “voting system (that) is creating instability between regions of the UK” and then concluded by stressing that a proportional representational system (PR) would “give people the chance that their activity make a difference to how the country is run”.
Also in support of the motion was Durham’s Green Party 2015 Parliamentary Candidate, and Founder of Democratise, Jonathan Elmer. Highlighting the idea that the replacement of FPTP with PR would give political parties “an incentive to target all over the country – not just particular areas”, he maintained that “proportional representation removes the need for voting tactically”. In addressing the common complaint that the adoption of PR would result in a greater number of coalition governments, he proposed that decisions would in fact be “better made” due to the potential for a “non-adversarial, non-confrontational environment” mode of parliament. In regards to the point that PR would give rise to smaller, fringe-parties, he once more attempted to allay fears about breaking the status quo. ‘‘The best way to tackle extremism is inclusion, so that they are exposed to the debate and discussion of the moderate majority”.
UKIP’s John Arnott also attacked the current voting system. He said it “fails to deliver the minority and majority view of the population” and “50% of votes cast are lost”. Contending that the “widespread use of tactical voting” has resulted in a Parliament which is “not a representative one” – the Conservatives have a majority government, yet only 36% of the vote – he also claimed that FPTP “excludes minorities from representation, and reinforces the narrative that politics is about where you live, not what you believe in”. He ended his speech by arguing that “such disenfranchisement is causing apathy”, and that “only a PR system can bring back public opinion to political discourse”.
First to oppose the motion was Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, Lord Martin Callanan. He opened his remarks by pointing out that the 2011 AV referendum saw “68% voting against” and sought to affirm that defending FPTP is “a matter of principle, not opportunity”. Citing how the Conservatives were elected with an overall majority in the 2015 General Election, he mounted a further defence of FPTP. He declared that under a different system, deals would have to be made with “the little Liberal Democrats, and most certainly UKIP’’ and then proceeded to explain how FPTP provides a “clear-cut choice”, produces a “stable government, not dominated by smaller parties”, as well as “promote a link between constituent and their representatives who become their geographical ambassadors”.
Stating that proportional representational electoral systems “do not produce the best candidates, just the candidates who are hated the least”, Frans Robyns argued that PR is not “as democratic as it is painted”. Justifying his view, he noted that that in a PR system various parties negotiate for more power in a process that is “fundamentally undemocratic”. Moreover, Robyns claimed that PR systems are “dangerous because it gives people more than one vote each” and then finished by remarking that FPTP is the “only effective way of maintaining someone who can deal with issues on a very local basis”.
Illustrating how replacing FPTP with a PR electoral system “risks putting ourselves into an unstable, even ungovernable, state”, Andrew Lloyd rounded off the evening’s main speeches. He mentioned how the American government has had to shut down on 12 occasions (varying from 12 to 21 days) due to a lack of political certainty under its PR electoral system. In light of this alleged propensity for PR to “cause a lot of economic issues”, he also rejected the motion.
The speakers’ comments caused a lot of reaction from the audience, including the question of whether under the current system “if you are a junior doctor in Jeremy Hunt’s constituency, would he listen to your concerns”. The panel was also urged to reject the “teleological view” of how people have “fought” for FPTP, and to accept that the electoral system shouldn’t reflect what can produce “a strong government, but a democratic government”. In contrast, others argued that under the current system MPs represent individuals whether they voted for them or not. Some emphasised although the FPTP “is not perfect, you should not have to abandon your morals and ideologies” in order to replace it.
After two acclamation votes, it was indeed decided that First Past the Post is past its best.