The Independent Group won’t succeed unless it supports electoral reform – here’s why

The breakaway party may give the politically homeless something to vote for, but until we have proportional representation, no party can promise the public that their votes will matter

Joe Sousek
Thursday 21 February 2019 12:23 GMT
Who is part of the Independent Group?

The newly formed Independent Group of MPs has good reason to fear Britain’s first past the post (FPTP) voting system. It has long been the bane of political startups and breakaways.

The experience of the SDP-Liberal Alliance is a stark warning. In the 1983 general election, they took over 25 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 28 per cent. Yet Labour won nine times as many seats as their new rival. Similarly, in 2015, the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Ukip won almost a quarter of the votes between them, but ended up sharing 1.5 per cent of seats in the commons.

This warped logic has shaped parties’ policies towards electoral reform. Not all who have been over-represented by FPTP support it (the SNP, a third of Labour MPs, and even the occasional Conservative support change). But everyone who has fallen victim to FPTP believes it should be scrapped.

Could this be about to change? It is true that Chuka Umunna – a key figure in the Independent Group – has long been a vocal campaigner for proportional representation (PR). In 2016, Umunna was the primary sponsor of a cross-party early day motion calling for just that.

However, not all of the group have shared this enthusiasm. Mike Gapes publicly rebuffed the opportunity to sign Umunna’s early day motion, tweeting: “I do not support PR for Westminster elections. And I don't agree with this EDM”. Gavin Shuker is known in Labour circles as an ardent supporter of the status quo, arguing that “FPTP is a superior system, which gives voters a fair chance of the result they want”.

Joan Ryan previously wrote that “we should proudly preserve” our electoral system, while just three years ago Anna Soubry said, “I do not believe we need electoral reform, as the current system of FPTP is satisfactory”. Others, like Luciana Berger and Heidi Allen, have been lukewarm towards PR at best.

This lack of support, let alone consensus, among the breakaways raises the prospect of the new parliamentary group backing FPTP by default. This is all the more likely if they aim to recruit more defectors from the Conservative party, among whom support for PR is less rare.

The Independent Group announced themselves to the world under the slogan “Politics is Broken. Let’s change it”. To many, it would be a facepalming irony if they remained committed to the system responsible for so much of the breakage.

Besides, there is every reason to expect FPTP to destroy any party that emerges out of the Independent Group to contest elections. The only party to have truly broken through the system in recent decades is the SNP, who benefit from the natural concentration of their voters in Scottish constituencies. Already spanning Streatham to Liverpool, this new group has no such advantage.

With its potential voters thinly spread, the voting system is far more likely to punish than it is to reward the upstarts. Maybe this is why Anna Soubry struck a different tone on LBC last night, saying that FPTP “does have its inadequacies” and that the systems of PR that keep the current constituency link (used in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as well as in Germany and New Zealand) are “quite interesting”.

But FPTP will also punish whichever of the two largest parties it manages to take most votes from. According to Electoral Calculus, a 2 per cent swing from Labour to a left-leaning splinter group (based on the 2017 results) would be expected to produce almost no representation for the new party. It would, however, hurt Labour enough to hand the Conservatives an outright majority. A larger swing could put the Tories into landslide territory, just as it did in 1983.

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Of course, it is not political parties but the voters who are the real victims of FPTP. As Theresa May herself has said, many British people feel ignored by politics and for decades have not trusted that their votes would count.

This is the unavoidable consequence of massive voter inequality; of general elections hard fought only in a handful of marginal constituencies and new ideas shut out of parliament even as they attract millions of votes. With governments routinely taking power with the support of 40 per cent of the voters or less, it is not surprising that most people end up unhappy with the policies imposed on them.

Umunna undoubtedly understands the dangerous gamble he is taking with our voting system: that instead of freeing the electorate from the status quo, a new party could end up entrenching its power. The Independent Group may give the politically homeless something to vote for, but until we have PR, no party can promise the public that their votes will matter. Perhaps we will see some Damascene conversions among the rest of the group as they too wake up to this realisation.

Joe Sousek is the Co-Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter: the movement for Proportional Representation.

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