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‘Stability and Strong Government? Not with this Merry-Go-Round’

If the UK’s First Past the Post electoral system can’t deliver its supposed advantages, why we are continuing with it?

David Cameron has returned to government as Foreign Secretary. Photo: PA/Alamy

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Another reset, another reshuffle. In fact, this week has seen the seventh major Cabinet reshuffle since the last election less than four years ago. As ever, we saw promotions, demotions, sackings, as well as a few surprises – most notably the return of former Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, who also gets the perk of a lifetime position in the House of Lords.

But for all the excitement that these reshuffles bring to political commentators, the instability they bring to our government is not to be taken lightly – especially given that ‘strong and stable government’ is supposedly the price we pay for our First Past the Post electoral system, which produces such distorted election results.

Every time a new Cabinet minister takes office, it is a change in direction for that department, with a new person having to learn the ins-and-outs of their brief and build relationships from scratch with both departmental and non-departmental actors. And this will have knock-on effects in the real world.

One consequence of this reshuffle is that the Department of Health and Social Care will have a largely new and inexperienced ministerial team, right on the verge of possibly the worst NHS winter crisis in years. Hardly an opportune moment for a reset.

This is not to say that no change in ministers would be desirable, but there is a clear balance to be struck as to what is the right frequency to be changing the heads of government departments.

Whatever you think that balance should be, it is unlikely to be as low as every 15 months – the average at which Cabinet ministers have been replaced since Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016. Not all of this is down to reshuffles, some are down to resignations in disgrace, but it is hard to see how changes of this magnitude this frequently are conducive to political stability.

Of course, the speed of the UK’s ministerial merry-go-round in recent years has been historically abnormal, but even over the past 50 years, the average Cabinet minister has still only lasted in one post for 25 months. This compares to an average of 37 months – nearly 50% longer – across the rest of western Europe. Only France and Italy saw more frequent changes round the cabinet table than the UK during this period – though in just the last decade, no comparable country has had shorter serving ministers than Britain.

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And yet, isn’t the supreme argument of First Past the Post advocates that our current voting system enables political stability in a way no other can? Defenders of the status quo often justify our distorted election results because they allow for single-party majority governments, which – even if elected on a minority of the vote – are supposedly so much stronger than the broader-based coalitions typically seen in democracies that have proportional representation. 

But this changing of ministers on a near annual basis isn’t strong or stable – it’s chaos (even with Ed Miliband still on the opposition benches).

A comparative study earlier this year dispelled the idea that PR leads to higher levels of political instability. It demonstrated that PR-using democracies – like Germany, Sweden and Switzerland – typically outperform countries that don’t use proportional voting systems – such as Canada, France and the UK – across a range of measures of parliamentary and governmental stability.

This latest reshuffle only adds to that evidence. The UK is not uniquely stable, indeed, it’s increasingly becoming the new Italy (which also uses a not particularly proportional voting system).

With that in mind, it’s worth considering why, if it can’t even deliver upon its supposed advantages, we are continuing with First Past the Post at all. PR-using Germany has strong and stable governments, why don’t we?

Ultimately, Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – fairer and more representative election results with proportional representation, or the continued rotting of a political system fuelled by First Past the Post. 


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