Guest blog for Make Votes Matter and Unlock Democracy by A.C. Grayling, philosopher, author and founder of the New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University London. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Make Votes Matter.

If there is one near-certainty about Brexit, it is that it would not have happened if the House of Commons were a legislature elected on the basis of proportional representation. There are several reasons for this, each conclusive on its own, and each only possible because of the First Past the Post voting system employed for the House of Commons – though not for other assemblies in the UK, and not even for committees of the House of Commons itself.

FPTP voting systems produce two-main-party politics, with other voices and opinions squeezed aside disproportionately to their support. Leaving aside the tendency of binary politics to become deeply divisive and bitterly adversarial – look at the US, whose House of Representatives is elected this way – with the resulting degeneration of political debate to simplistic slogans and slanging matches (as in the weekly farce of Prime Minister’s Questions), the result is typically for elections to produce majorities for one of the two main parties on a minority of the vote – a minority vote conferring 100% of the power.

The election of December 2019 is a classic example. On a relatively small swing from the 2017 election which produced a ‘hung’ (a.k.a balanced, representative) Parliament, the Conservatives were given an artificially-inflated 80 seat majority on 43% of votes cast representing 29% of the electorate. In such circumstances FPTP produces one-party government indistinguishable from government in a one-party state, as the three and a half years since the last election painfully demonstrate.

Conjoined with the ‘sovereignty of Parliament’ doctrine, FPTP is truly a system of ‘elective dictatorship’ as Lord Hailsham put it. In the nineteenth century Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Virgina Woolf) pointed out that it entailed that if Parliament decreed the killing of all blue-eyed babies at birth, that would be the law. John Stuart Mill said that although this is technically true, it could not happen because ‘MPs are gentlemen’. Well: that ship has long since sailed, and as a constitutional principle the doctrine of self-restraint in the possession of unbridled power has had its day.

Note that during the ‘hung’ Parliament of 2017-19 every initiative by the government was tested case by case on the floor of the Commons, no automatic whipped majority being available to push legislation through. That is what a Parliament should always be like: holding the executive to account, scrutinising its actions and proposals, not letting it get away with using its lobby-fodder majority to represent the party line rather than the interests of constituents and country.

As is well known, the Brexit referendum was an attempt to cauterise an internal Conservative Party angiodysplasia (a colonic bleed; an apt description). The Eurosceptics had been galvanised by the 2013 EU decision to outlaw offshore tax havens. If the Parliament sitting in 2015 had been proportionally elected, the government – almost certainly a coalition of at least two parties – would not have been manipulable by a ginger group like the so-called ‘European Research Group’, a tail that wags the dog because of having that kind of influence in a one-party government. Instead the most it could achieve is to force its party to withdraw from a coalition.

If a referendum bill came before a proportionally-elected Parliament, it would either build in a threshold or supermajority requirement, or if neither because the outcome was explicitly ‘advisory’, it would require that the ‘advice’ of the outcome be debated to see whether it should be taken. In 2016 the 51.89% of votes on the day for Leave represented 37% of the electorate, 26% of the population – and a sensible Parliament would have pondered whether to take the advice of a third of electors, a quarter of the population, to commit national hari-kiri.

If we have a ‘hung’ parliament in the next election, with a coalition government or a minority government granted ‘confidence and supply’ by other parties, Proportional Representation will be introduced; it would be the minimum required, in return for participation or support, by parties currently unfairly – undemocratically – disadvantaged by FPTP. The Parliament after that will accordingly be a democratic one. And as night follows day, it will at very least be receptive (and probably more) to the people of the UK having another say on Europe.

And that will be only one of many advantages to follow. No system is perfect, but a proportional electoral system takes account of the fact that every society is a congeries of diverse minorities and individuals, all of whom deserve an equal voice, and that government should not be party-political but should combine the most salient interests from across society in the service of all society. For never forget: in 2019, 57% of those who went out to vote on election day exerted no influence whatever on the choice of government they live under.

Photo credit: luaeva