FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Stephen Gilmore, Media Manager, Make Votes Matter: 07948 219975 / +32 498 07 78 19 (WhatsApp)
London, Wednesday 13th March

Cabinet ministers appointed in the current parliament have on average served in one post for just eight months – a record low for comparable democracies in the same period, according to a new report.

While the UK has long been home to a higher rate of ministerial turnover than most other advanced democracies, its progressively worsening performance over the last fifty years could be a cause for concern for the next government, the campaign group behind the study suggests.

The report finds that UK cabinet ministers appointed between the 1970s and 2005 generally remained in one office for between two and three years – longer than in the subsequent period, but still less than in many European countries. In Germany, for example, in the last half century, the worst single parliament for ministerial tenure (1994-98) saw German  ministers remain in post for on average 3.1 years, higher than the UK’s best equivalent score (2.8 years in the 1997-2001 parliament).

The downward trend in the UK’s cabinet-level stability is coupled with the even more acute high turnover crisis at junior ministerial level, the report notes. One oft-cited example is the housing minister: 25 holders since the 1997 election, changing hands seven times since the 2019 election.

Dylan Difford, an independent researcher and the principal author of the report, commented:

“In the last decade, no comparable democracy has had shorter serving cabinet ministers than Britain.1 Looking at the last half century, cabinet ministers in PR-using western Europe have remained in one post for 50% longer on average than their UK counterparts.

“This is not to say that no change in ministers would be desirable, but the UK’s high degree of churn has a real impact on day-to-day government performance.”2

On the question of overall government stability, the report observes that advocates of the First Past the Post voting system used for Westminster elections often justify the disproportional results FPTP produces on the basis that it delivers strong and stable government.

Yet, the data shows the last five British governments have been the shortest-lived of any government among comparable parliamentary democracies. Moreover, across the last fifty years, the average UK government was found only to have managed to remain in office for 60% of its possible term, compared to governments in Germany at 81%, or in Luxembourg at 92%.

The report also finds that the UK’s extended periods of one-party government, manufactured by the electoral system on a minority of the vote, belie a deep discontinuity and instability, with less frequent changes in governing party masking frequent internal party conflict and what the Institute for Government has referred to as “chronic short-termism” in policy-making (Hoddinott, 2023). This compares to many European countries where, the report suggests, more frequent but often only partial exchanges of power in effect provide for greater continuity between governments.

Make Votes Matter’s report, a comprehensive analysis spanning five decades and 17 peer democracies, conclusively discredits the notion that the UK’s political architecture is a more reliable guarantor of political stability.3

Cat Smith, Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood who wrote the foreword to the report, said:

“Five Prime Ministers in eight years, seven major reshuffles in four years, multiple resets and countless factional fights – the melodrama of recent years makes for good headlines but bad government. Far from delivering strong and stable government as its advocates claim, the Westminster system has produced nothing but chaos and division.”

Make Votes Matter’s Alliance and Research Manager, Alberto Smith, added:

“Swapping Secretaries of State every eight months isn’t strong or stable, it’s chaotic. Worse, it’s not a statistical anomaly – the UK’s instability in recent years is just the latest low point of a long-term downward trend.

“FPTP in the UK leads to frequent, often quite drastic changes in policy direction – this wastes both time and money. By contrast, in countries that use PR, the necessity to build cross-party consensus on major issues means governments, backed by a majority of the public’s votes, can take a more long-term approach to policy-making.”

-ENDS-

Notes to editors:

1 Ministerial turnover rates in the last decade (years):

PR Average: 2.94
Non-PR Average: 1.93

2 For more on the effects of ministerial churn, see Sasse et al, 2020, for the IfG: www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/government-reshuffles.pdf

3 Indeed, for all the talk from opponents of electoral reform that adopting PR would ‘risk the UK becoming like Italy’, none of Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s cabinet has changed in the 16 months it has been in power, meaning only a quarter of the UK’s current cabinet have been in their post as long as all current Italian cabinet ministers have.

The full report can be found here.

For media enquiries, please contact: 

Steve Gilmore, Media Manager, Make Votes Matter
steve.gilmore@makevotesmatter.org.uk
07948 219975 / +32 498 077819 (WhatsApp)

Make Votes Matter is a single-issue campaign for Proportional Representation in the House of Commons. Working with all parties to generate irresistible demand for PR, we aspire to a truly democratic UK in which everyone has an equal voice, power is shared fairly, and decisions are made for the common good. The Alternative Vote – on which the UK had a referendum in 2011 – is not a form of Proportional Representation and can be even more disproportional than First Past the Post.