New report sets out what a move away from ‘first past the post’ could mean for government formation, how government operates, how the House of Commons functions, devolution and the Union, and Westminster’s political culture.
The impact of changing the UK’s electoral system would go far beyond the outcomes of elections themselves – and proponents of change should fully explore the knock-on implications for government, parliament, and the Union says a new joint report by the Institute for Government and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute
Published today, Electoral reform and the Constitution: What might a different voting system mean for the UK? draws on examples from within the UK and across the world to set out what a move away from ‘first past the post’ could mean for government formation, how government operates, how the House of Commons functions, devolution and the Union, and Westminster’s political culture.
Recent experiences in the UK have shown that first past the post is no more guaranteed to deliver stable government than other electoral systems. Since 2010, the UK has spent more time under coalition or minority government (7 years and 6 months) than single-party majority government (5 years and 7 months). But a period of political disruption would inevitably follow electoral reform as ministers, MPs, commentators, and the public adjust to the changes in electoral dynamics that would follow a change in how the UK votes.
With the UK’s institutions built for a majoritarian system, the new report, part of the IfG/Bennett Review of the UK Constitution, sets out questions and recommendations that proponents of electoral reform should consider now to maximise the potential future benefits of electoral reform.
- Clearer rules for government formation – including a process, such as a vote, by which candidates can demonstrate that they command the confidence of the House
- New mechanisms for managing relationships between parties during coalition or non-majority governments to reduce the risk of government collapse
- Changes to parliamentary procedure, including the creation of a cross-party Commons business committee to preside over the House of Commons timetable.
- Safeguards to prevent coalition or cooperation agreements including parties that only represented one part of the UK from privileging that part of the union over others
The new report also warns that proponents of electoral reform should ensure that any change in the voting system commands public support – with a robust process for considering the options for a new voting system and a democratic process, such as a referendum, to ensure there is a clear mandate for change.
“Proponents of electoral reform often argue that a more proportional voting system would lead to a more consensus-based government, a stronger parliament, a more cohesive union, and a less divisive political culture. While international evidence shows that such benefits can be delivered, they are not guaranteed – and may be contingent on accompanying reforms to the way government, Parliament, and the union operate,” says co-author, Jess Sargeant, Institute for Government.
This report considers the knock-on implications of electoral reform for the functioning of the rest of the constitution and identifies the changes that may need to adjust to a different voting system.
Says co-author, Jack Pannell, Institute for Government: “Much of our system of government, and how Parliament functions, is built up around the assumption that the electoral system will deliver strong single-party majorities, with another single-party in opposition. A shift in our voting system would mean that these structures would no longer be fit for purpose.”
The findings of this report show that making electoral reform work requires in-depth consideration of the knock-on effects, and a willingness to adapt to challenges that may arise along the way.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.