Keir Starmer: Put country first, then reform electoral system

Extraordinary UK election result shows how broken it is

While Labour basks in the glow of a thumping 170-seat majority, smarter heads in the party – and indeed across the political spectrum – should quickly turn to consider the UK electoral system that delivered it to them.

Labour has won two-thirds of the seats on little more than one-third of the votes cast. In what was billed as a pivotal moment for the country, 40% of the electorate didn’t bother to exercise their right to choose an MP or government. Voter turn-out was almost 10 percentage points lower than five years ago. Around 20% of those who could have voted chose Labour, whose share of the polling was lower than the party achieved in 2017 while led by unelectable Jeremy Corbyn.

The Liberal Democrats increased their number of MPs by almost 10 times as many as in 2019, while their share of the vote remained static. Meanwhile two challenger parties – Reform and the Greens – picked up a combined 20% of all votes cast but will have little more than 1% of MPs between them in the new parliament.

This was a single-issue election – get rid of the Conservatives – and rightly so after eight years of chaos that began with the referendum on European Union membership in 2016. But it is not a mandate for Keir Starmer and Labour.

For five years, the Tory party deluded itself that its 80-seat majority in 2019 was a ringing endorsement of Boris Johnson. But much of the red wall that turned blue consisted of traditional Labour voters who could not stomach the idea of a government led by hard-left Corbyn. The Johnson coalition was built on sand. Labour would do well to understand its own unstable coalition from day one of its administration.

If it is to win the next election, it will need to deliver on its mandate and show it is fit to govern. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will both find that simply not being the Tories will not be enough to maintain their performance in the next general election.

Electoral reform is long overdue

Starmer’s majority gives him a unique opportunity to reset UK politics. Such a low turn-out reflects the disillusion felt across the country – and not just a lack of enthusiasm for traditionally dominant parties. The UK’s first-past-the-post system does not work. Unless or until every vote counts, apathy will persist and anger at the political class will grow.

The incoming prime minister should immediately propose a review of the UK electoral system that will be complete within two years. It should be a model that maintains elements of FPTP – so that a large proportion of MPs are directly voted for by the electorate (and can be removed by them) and ensure that constituents still have a representative in the legislature. But it also needs an element of proportional representation so that every voter feels like they have a direct say in who represents them in Westminster.

Consider, for example, a system in which 300 MPs were elected via FPTP constituencies and the same number of MPs elected via PR. Such a system would still allow a popular party to achieve a majority in parliament – if 40% of the total vote delivered wins in 60% of the constituencies, as has often been the case in previous elections, then that party would have half of the MPs. But the PR element would allow a much broader representation of parties – and views – in Westminster and be far more reflective of the will of the electorate.

PR has its drawbacks, not least that individuals can become MPs without anyone ever voting for them. Lists drawn up by parties run the risk of a chosen few having jobs for life as MPs, which feels deeply undemocratic. And those lists may well end up being the preserve of advisers, donors and members of the political elite.

The solution would be to place a limit of two terms on MPs chosen by the PR route. This could be transformative in changing the profile of those that serve in the House of Commons and pricking the Westminster bubble.

Parties would be able to choose specialists in key areas to represent the party. Given the limited timeframe, smart professionals with a desire to serve could do so with the opportunity to go back to their careers in the future. Imagine a select committee on social care with members that have real, up-to-date experience of working in the care sector; or economists sitting on the Treasury committee. The political class could be substantially improved, and maybe voters would notice as much.

No doubt Labour – like any new government – will be wary of expending political time and capital changing the electoral system when it has other priorities in the economy, health, education and the environment. And turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. But Starmer has a remarkable, and pivotal, opportunity to re-enfranchise the UK electorate and immediately consolidate his right to govern. Throughout the campaign, he repeated the mantra ‘country first, party second’. Over to you, prime minister.

Clive Horwood is Managing Editor and Deputy Chief Executive Officer of OMFIF.

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