Tory MP says boundary review will not fix Britain's broken voting system – and only PR will

Exclusive: Ben Howlett said the party should embrace PR to complete its modernisation process

Jon Stone
Monday 03 October 2016 12:54 BST
Britain's voting system does not produce proportional results
Britain's voting system does not produce proportional results (PA)

The Government’s boundary review will still leave an “in-built problem” in Britain’s voting system that can only be fixed by introducing proportional representation, a Conservative MP has warned.

Ben Howlett said First Past the post was a “very unfair, undemocratic system” and that the Tories should consider advocating for PR as part of the party’s modernisation process.

“Ideologically, Conservatives don’t like reform of that sort of nature – they’re quite conservative by nature – they’re a little bit less progressive than some other parties,” he told The Independent in an interview at Tory conference.

“That has changed, and I’ve seen a sizable shift, I keep seeing that shift at conference. 2003 was my first conference – the idea that we would have been contemplating electoral reform at conference in 2003 was pie-in-the sky thinking.

“We wouldn’t have been talking about things like gay marriage, putting up the living wage, even addressing the issues of inequality in those days. Now, here we are – we’re actually taking leadership of those issues. Why should we steer away from those issues when it comes to the constitution?”

Mr Howlett said the UK Parliament should look at adopting the Additional Member System (AMS) used in the London Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Under this system constituencies have a single local MP – with additional MPs elected to regions to make the overall result proportional to votes cast.

The MP said he supported the boundary review – which will redraw constituency borders to make constituencies equal size – but that it would not fix the overall problem with the voting system.

“It’ll go some way, I don’t think it’ll go the full way. Still, there’ll be an in-built problem within the system that’ll mean that some votes aren’t counted. That’s the problem with the First Past the Post electoral system,” he said.

Conservative MP for Bath Ben Howlett (Wikimedia Commons)

Britain's voting system produces overall results wildly out-of-kilter with the votes cast. At the 2015 general election Ukip won just one seat out of 650 but took 12.5 per cent of the vote. The Green Party won 3.8 per cent of the vote and also just one seat, while the SNP took 4.7 per cent of the vote and 56 seats.

Mr Howlett was the only Conservative MP to vote for Green MP Caroline Lucas’s bill in support of introducing proportional representation for elections, which she previously tabled as a private members bill.

He suggested that though few Tories supported electoral reform, some MPs appeared to be open to persuasion.

“I know a number of MPs who I spoke to just outside the lobbies who were asking ‘Is this a whipped vote, or not a whipped vote? Oh it’s not a whipped vote, I’m not going to go through.’” They did think ‘you know what, it would be quite interesting to be thinking about that’.”

Mr Howlett also threw his support behind a petition organised by the Make Votes Matter campaign group calling on the Constitution Minister to look at the possibility of changing the voting system.

Labour supporters queued around the block at the party’s conference in Liverpool last weekend to hear about proportional representation in what is understood to be the biggest rally in favour of the policy in the party’s recent history.

MPs from across the opposition party’s factions – including John McDonnell, Clive Lewis, Chuka Umunna, and Stephen Kinnock threw their weight behind the policy. Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has yet to decide on the issue, however.

While the bulk of the Conservative party remains strongly opposed to PR, it is now supported by Ukip, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats.

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