Published on 14 July 2023
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Electoral reform would have important constitutional implications beyond general elections

Electoral reform would improve representation in parliament, but for it to bring about further benefits for the UK, wider reform would be needed, writes Jack Pannell, as part of the Bennett Institute / Institute for Government review of the UK constitution.

The UK’s system for electing MPs to Westminster at general elections remains a topic of debate. Most political parties except Labour and the Conservatives have backed some form of proportional representation, and since devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999 all three use some form of proportional voting system for parliamentary and assembly elections.

The UK’s political system is built around the notion that first past the post (FPTP) delivers strong and stable majority governments. This means electoral reform would have important implications for the constitution that would be felt far beyond election night. For proponents this is a strength, but it also would present some challenges. It is vital that any consideration of a move to a more proportional voting system fully considers the implications – and plans for accompanying reforms.

Specific outcomes are not guaranteed

Electoral reform would not in and of itself deliver all the changes promised by its advocates, which include better representation, better policy and a more collaborative political culture. If these are the key objectives, then other institutional reforms will be required, as explored in our new report Electoral Reform and the Constitution: What might a different voting system mean for the UK? Electoral reform has brought about positive changes in other countries – seen for example in greater representation of women MPs and the inclusion of minority group issues in the New Zealand parliament – but it was the other changes made alongside the reform that allowed it to be a success.

There are many options for electoral reform, each of which might bring different benefits and challenges. All electoral systems are subject to ‘gaming’ by political actors, and such a monumental change to the way our democracy functions will undoubtedly lead to unexpected outcomes. What is most likely – though not guaranteed – is that PR will lead to fewer single-party majority governments and a more even spread of parties represented in the Commons. Reformers hope this will lead to more diverse parliament and more consensual commons. But to capitalise on those while maintaining stability and certainty, the knock-on implications need to be fully considered.

There would need to be clarification on how governments are formed and then operate

There are surprisingly few formal mechanisms for forming UK governments. This is in large part because under FPTP the results of general elections are usually (though not always) obvious, with a single party winning the most votes and so their leader being deemed to ‘command the confidence of the Commons’ – this means the monarch can appoint them prime minister, usually the next day, without controversy. A shift to PR would lead to far fewer majorities and more coalitions, bringing the process of forming a government, and the role of the monarch, into the spotlight.

Clearer rules would be needed for government formation, such as a vote in parliament to demonstrate confidence in a new government – to remove any controversy arising from the monarch appearing to ‘choose’ the next prime minister following a less clear-cut outcome. The negotiations that follow hung parliaments also take longer, so rules for caretaker governments should be established too.

More coalition government would also necessitate more robust systems to manage relationships between different political parties and prevent government collapse. These would include better support for ministers and special advisors who act as key brokers, consideration of how ministerial appointments work in coalitions as well as how information sharing between parties will function. 

The benefits of electoral reform would be most felt in the Commons if paired with procedural change

The House of Commons would also need reforms to adapt to an electoral system that would break the clear two-party pattern in the UK. A more proportional Commons would likely mean the government could no longer rely on large majorities and strong party control to pass legislation, which could give MPs more influence over law-making than they currently have. However, procedural changes would help parliament to adapt to a more pluralist primary chamber, promote cross-party working and maximise the possible benefits of electoral reform.

The UK could follow the lead of New Zealand and establish a Commons Business Committee to preside over the timetable, reducing government control over parliament. A new system for select committee chairs and members would also help with the representation of multiple parties. Even the physical structure of the chamber, currently set up as government and opposition benches, might be changed to reflect new parliamentary composition.

Proponents of electoral reform need to fully consider the implications for the rest of the constitution, and ensure it is paired with other reforms and clarifications where needed to maximise the potential positive effects. The changes will be large and run far deeper than elections themselves. A proactive approach to reform will be key.

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.


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