On 5th May, Britain will vote whether to change the rules for electing MPs. James Purnell, former Labour minister, says we need change. James Forder, economist, says we don’tby James Purnell / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
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James Purnell: In its 1950s heyday, first-past-the-post (FPTP) produced strong and stable government, aided by high turnout and elections in which many seats changed hands between Labour and Tory. Since then, the proportion of people voting for the main two parties has fallen from 97 per cent to 65 per cent. Parties other than the big three got one in ten votes at the 2005 and 2010 elections. Research by John Curtice at the University of Strathclyde on these trends shows that—as with the most recent election—hung parliaments and coalitions will become increasingly likely whatever system we have.
This demise in two-party politics makes FPTP a busted flush. First, elections are increasingly decided by a handful of people in marginal seats (the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates it was just 460,000 voters at the last election). Second, the number of safe seats has increased; half of all seats have been held by the same party since 1970. Third, an increasing number of MPs—two thirds in 2010—are elected without majority support in their constituencies, with some getting as little as 30 per cent of the vote. Fourth, the system encourages candidates to target rivals who are their ideological neighbours, rather than working with them to defeat their real opponents. Fifth, FPTP encourages large numbers of people to vote tactically or risk wasting their vote since, as campaign leaflets are always reminding us, “X party can’t win in this area.”
The alternative vote (AV) is a small change, in keeping with Britain’s evolutionary approach to constitutional reform, but one that addresses these problems. We should vote “yes.”
James Forder: In choosing an electoral system, what we want is a means of securing effective and accountable government. Effectiveness argues for single-party government, but accountability insists upon it. FPTP is the best choice because it usually gives us single-party government, as British election results since the 1950s have shown. Curtice’s research has been contradicted by work by Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ivor Crewe, now at Oxford.
The advantages of single-party government are usually seen in terms of it resulting in “strong” or “stable” government. An even bigger advantage is that it empowers voters and gives us a proper chance of holding politicians to account. First, it means that elections decide who governs. Where coalition is…