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Westminster’s Winner-Takes-All Voting System Skewed Britain Towards a Hard Brexit, Report Suggests

The Democratic Unionist Party had an outsized voice in Westminster during Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

Now-Lord David Frost looks on as then-PM Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street. Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images

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The way Britain picks its Members of Parliament contributed to the warped nature of the Brexit debate – pushing the UK towards a hard exit from the European Union, a new report from the Institute for Government suggests.

The analysis from the respected think tank finds that the the over-representation of the Democratic Unionist Party in the 2017 general election – coupled with Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing to take their seats at Westminster – meant there was no representation “at all” for Northern Ireland’s pro-EU parties in the UK parliament during the Brexit process. 

The DUP paid for ads on the mainland during the Brexit referendum, which may have contributed to the UK vote to leave the EU. But it also backed leaving the Customs Union and Single Market after the referendum result – a form of hard Brexit that Boris Johnson eventually pushed through as Prime Minister. 

That’s despite the DUP’s position that Northern Ireland must avoid a hard border with the Republic, which was almost entirely incompatible with its demands for the UK to end free movement of goods, services and people with the EU. 

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The report authors say this meant that debate on the consequences of EU exit for Northern Ireland – which as the only part of the UK to share a land border with the EU was particularly acutely affected by Brexit – was “dominated by a party, the DUP, that only represented one part of one community there.”

“Electoral reform and the constitution: What might a different voting system mean for the UK?” was produced with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. 

Breaking the Union

It finds that the First Past the Post voting system in Westminster has created a raft of problems for the union. “There are several problems that flow from the electoral distortions that the voting system creates. Important constitutional perspectives in each part of the UK have little or no representation in the UK parliament,” the researchers note.

“Prior to 2015, there was limited representation for Scottish nationalists, despite the support of around a fifth of the vote share. Then, after 2015, there was little representation for Scottish unionists despite around half the electorate supporting this position. This meant that in both parliaments large portions of Scotland’s citizens were under-represented in Westminster debates,” the authors find. 

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This report 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. 

Under First Past the Post, the government is typically dominated by English MPs. “In the 2019 parliament, 95% of government MPs represent English constituencies. As a consequence, most ministers – who are drawn from this pool – also represent English constituencies.”

There are just three cabinet members representing non-English constituencies at present. That includes both the secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales. The same is true for the current composition of the shadow cabinet, the report finds. 

“FPTP’s noted habit of failing to translate political support outside of England into seats, creating a perception that governments have been imposed on other parts of the UK (even if substantial minorities did support them,” the researchers add.

Wrong and Unstable

And they find that First Past the Post is “no more guaranteed” to deliver stable government than other electoral systems such as forms of proportional representation. 

Since 2010, the UK has spent more time under coalition or minority government (seven years and six months) than single-party majority government (five years and seven months). 

In contrast to the nationalist domination of Scottish MPs, in the PR-elected Scottish parliament, the “top up” list component of the voting system ensures representation from other parties. Of 73 constituency seats in the 2021 election, 62 were won by the SNP, with regional list seats providing the majority of opposition MPs.

In the Northern Ireland assembly, due to its political history, STV was chosen as the system for the Northern Ireland Assembly, established by the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure that a range of political parties and a plurality of voices were represented.

Proportional systems can incentivise cooperative working, resulting in “a different kind of politics from the adversarial two-party politics” that FPTP produces. 

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Locked Out

PR systems can also increase the range of political parties represented. Under Westminster’s current system, candidates from smaller parties rarely meet the threshold to make it into the UK parliament. In 2019, the Green party, which increased its vote share by 1.1% to 2.7%, did not add to their single seat in Brighton Pavilion. The party received hundreds of thousands of votes nationally but just one MP.

A more proportional system would also likely increase the diversity of political parties officially represented in parliament. “This was the case after electoral reform in New Zealand: there was an immediate increase in the number of parties in parliament and the number remains high,” they add. Maori groups are now well-represented in New Zealand, in contrast to very low representation before the 1990s shift to the more proportional Additional Member System.

A shift to PR could also boost diversity in the UK. In 2003, the PR-elected Welsh Assembly was the first legislature in the world to have an equal proportion of male and female members elected. And at the last FPTP election in New Zealand, only 20% of MPs elected were women. But in the latest election, after ditching Westminster’s system, the proportion had risen to almost 50%. 

But with the UK’s institutions built for a majoritarian system, the report – part of an ongoing IfG/Bennett review of the UK constitution – notes that of the 43 nations that continue to use Westminster’s voting system for legislative elections, 39 are former British colonies.


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Growing Appetite

In Europe, only the authoritarian state of Belarus uses FPTP for its national elections, alongside the UK. Most countries that used FPTP in the past have since changed tack, including Ireland, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Japan, The Netherlands, South Africa and New Zealand.

The IfG report finds that there appears to be an “increasing public appetite for change.” The Labour party is under pressure from its members to commit to introducing PR in its next manifesto. Key party figures, including the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, have come out in favour of electoral reform. 

And for the first time, the 2021 British Social Attitudes survey found a majority of the public (51%) in favour of electoral reform. “There are also many ‘safe seats’ across the UK where votes for any but the incumbent party are all but wasted,” the authors note.

They suggest that the imposition of policies like mandatory voter ID was opposed “by all the other political parties” and may well not have gone ahead had it required support from another political party. 

A switch to proportional representation – as used in Wales, Scotland and NI – might require changes to how government and Parliament functions more widely. A cross-party Commons business committee – rather than the Government of the day – could preside over the House of Commons timetable. 

Changes to the physical structure of the Commons chamber, with its government and opposition benches, could also be considered as part of a shift to PR in Westminster, aiding a more “consensual” form of politics. 

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