Proportional Representation: House of Commons — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:49 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 5:49 pm, 23rd April 2019

I agree that first past the post creates a clear link that sometimes proportional representation systems do not.

As we committed in our manifesto to retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections, we have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. As we have touched on, under first past the post, individual Members of Parliament represent electors in a defined constituency. The link between hon. Members and their constituents is a core feature of our parliamentary democracy.

Constituents have a distinct parliamentary representative who is directly accountable to them and can be clearly seen to represent them. The representation is less obvious when someone is elected under a proportional representation system where larger multi-Member constituencies are used. In such circumstances, smaller communities are likely to be subsumed into a larger area and there is a risk that their particular interests and concerns will not be fully taken into account.

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Furthermore, proportional representation systems can still result in outcomes that many deem undesirable. A party that does not win the poll, and that potentially even loses seats, can still end up forming the Government, so voters have a Government that they did not vote for. Under proportional voting systems, voters may not really know what policies they end up voting for, as the successful parties will be those best able to negotiate a deal in a coalition after an election, rather than necessarily those that secure the most support from the electorate.

Crucially, given the party of the hon. Member who secured the debate, party list systems give parties and their leaders the most control over the make-up of lists of candidates, and ultimately, who will end up in this place. As my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris said, that can result in elected representatives who are more focused on the selectorate than the electorate, compared with single-Member constituencies under first past the post.

First past the post provides for a clear and straightforward count that usually needs to be conducted only once, or repeated only if it is tight, and that produces a clear outcome on the evening. Electoral systems used to achieve a proportionally representative outcome are often more complex than the first past the post system, which makes the impact of one person’s vote less clear. Systems such as the single transferable vote require ballots to be counted multiple times to allocate seats, which potentially obscures the impact of each vote on the result.

The ability of the first-past-the-post system to produce an uncomplicated and accurate count means that a result is produced more quickly, normally during the night following the poll, with an overall result early the next day. A timely, clear and secure result is in the interest of all parties and the country as a whole. Given the significant advantages of a first-past-the-post system, there would need to be compelling policy reasons for the Government to embrace a system that is less clear for voters and more complicated, and that could see someone’s third, fourth or even fifth choice for their constituency being the crucial choice they make, as I have touched on.

The current closed-list voting system for European Parliament elections was first used in 1999 and the turnout at that poll was 24%. That was significantly lower than the turnout of 36.4% at the previous European Parliament election held under the first-past-the-post system. Although turnouts have increased in more recent European Parliament elections, that is because they have been combined with first-past-the-post local elections taking place on the same day. It is clear that just shifting to a new voting system does not necessarily boost turnout, despite the arguments in 1999 from people who stated that the system would do that.