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First-past-the-post was meant to deliver stability. It’s time to junk it

OPINION: Our chaotic electoral system is the result of 60 years of tweaks to a fundamentally unjust base

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
20 October 2022, 3.06pm

Liz Truss announcing her resignation as prime minister outside 10 Downing Street on 20 October 2022

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK’s latest constitutional crisis is the product of a million tweaks to a system that should have been binned long ago.

Until 1965, the Conservative Party leader didn’t emerge through any kind of election at all, but through a mysterious process of ‘consultations’ with various powerful people.

But as old systems of patronage and hierarchy eroded, and with the hereditary peer Alec Douglas-Home having secured the post, this system of quiet rule by backroom boys was deemed out-of-date in a world of expanding literacy and university education, TV and mass media. And so it was tweaked.

Until 2005, it was still only Tory MPs who got a say, in the famous ballot rounds with late-night lobbying in the members’ bars, reproduced in so many political dramas.

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As the new millennium arrived, that too was deemed unacceptable. Tory members were no longer willing to pay subs to a party that didn’t give them a say, and they were finally enfranchised in 2005 – David Cameron was the first Conservative leader elected by the membership.

The system that the Conservatives were left with to elect their new leader – the system that may or may not deliver Liz Truss’s successor in the coming days – is not the same one we use as a country to elect our MPs and government. But the two, flawed, systems are linked.

Voting reforms within Britain’s main governing party were really just reflections of democratising tweaks to the British political system as a whole: women’s and working class suffrage was won in the first half of the 20th century; the voting age in Britain was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969; Scottish and Welsh devolution, Lords reform and Freedom of Information came with the 1997 Labour government; and so on.

Before these changes, the system was horrendously unfair, but in a sense it was strong and stable: a ruling class dating back centuries governed the country from its clubs and committees. If those in charge were sensible, they bent to the needs of those they ruled and, sometimes, one faction of the ruling class was replaced by another, but sovereignty remained with the crown in parliament, and power cascaded down from there. It was undemocratic, but it was able to withstand quite a lot of pressure.

After 60 years of democratising tweaks, the system we are now left with is not only undemocratic in new ways, but also a shambles. If, as David Cameron promised in 2014, the Scottish parliament is permanent – if Westminster can’t abolish it – then how can Westminster be sovereign? If the Tory membership chooses who leads the normal party of government, but that person doesn’t have the confidence of a majority of MPs, then where, ultimately, does power lie?

For decades, Britain’s system of firm-handed political management by the elite had been weakened. The screws of the machine have been loosened.

The change in Tory leadership rules made little difference at first: David Cameron and Theresa May both won among MPs and members. But as tensions developed about how to navigate the country through the current omnicrisis, differences between the two groups emerged, manifesting in different candidates.

First Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss gained power through the support of the party membership, who had one set of ideas, but with only a minority faction of the party’s MPs, who had other notions, behind them.

But this isn’t a presidential system. Johnson and Truss needed loyalty from those MPs to maintain their grip. Slip up – as both did – and they are gone.

There are two ways you can see all of this.

If you are a member of the elite that has run the country for generations, then you probably think those tweaks to the way British politics works were the problem in the first place. Party members shouldn’t get to choose their leaders, the selection of prime minister should be left to their betters. Under this argument, the thing destroying British politics is that little wedges of democracy were forced into it.

The other way to see it is that the problem is the British political system itself. Attempts to retrofit democratic features – whether members’ votes for Tory leader, devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not England) or the very beginnings of Lords reform – have merely drilled holes into its hierarchical structure. The system doesn’t really work any more, but lies dying on the ground that’s needed to grow a new one.

Unlike more proportional, democratic systems, first-past-the-post forces people with very different ideas about the world to coalesce into two vast political parties upon whom the governance of the country rests. These parties are writhing snake-pits of opposing factions who can’t stand each other, some tied together through shady backroom deals, others constantly at war. Political questions that should be debated in the open and decided by the citizenry are pushed into stitched-up selection meetings – whether for Labour candidates or Tory leaders.

It’s not a system designed to represent a genuinely democratic society in which multiple sets of ideas are proposed, debated and discarded or pursued. It’s a hard base on which to build a steeply hierarchical politics. But ultimately, as people on both Left and Right refuse to accept that the ruling class knows best, it is falling apart.

And the British constitutional system as a whole – an uncodified shambles that our rulers get to make up as they go along – is lurching from crisis to crisis. It doesn’t need more tweaks. It needs to be overthrown, and replaced with a proper, grown-up democracy: not hard foundations to build castles and palaces on, but fertile soil in which the future can grow.

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