There is a close correlation between MPs who represent safe seats in Parliament AND those MPs who still support the archaic British voting system, a system which essentially guarantees they will keep on winning, election after election.
That’s the main, if perhaps not startling, conclusion of research conducted by GET PR DONE! into the type of electoral system preferred by the nearly 200 Conservative and Labour MPs who hold safe seats in Parliament.
We also uncovered the fact that a relatively small percentage of MPs have come out publicly for a change to a proportional voting system. But that should also not be a shock. A respected academic study reported that before New Zealanders chose PR voting in the 1990s, “the “vast majority of Labour and National (Kiwi Conservatives) MPs opposed electoral reform.” MPs anywhere are seldom in the vanguard of public thinking.
By comparison, a recent UK opinion poll of Labour Party members here revealed that 83% wanted Labour to adopt PR as party policy at its upcoming annual conference in Brighton. Additionally, more than 300 local Labour parties have passed motions making the same proposal for changes to elections.
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, a barrister who holds a safe London seat that has been Labour since it was created in 1983, said in a recent interview that he was “cool” to introducing electoral reform. “Theoretical discussions about electoral reform are way down the list,” Starmer told a podcast interviewer.
MPs who hold safe seats are not only the strongest backers of continuing to use safe seats under FPTP. Indeed, the safer the seat, the stronger they tend to back the idea of predictable elections in which there is no serious competition, our research found.
Of course, the correlation isn’t perfect – some Labour MPs in safe seats definitely do support PR – and a significant number of MPs claim to be “undecided” or refuse to say which voting system they prefer.
And at least one Tory MP, Steve Double from Cornwall, claims there is no such thing as a safe seat in our election system. There are only “perceived safe seats,” he told the House of Commons in a 30 October 2017 parliamentary debate on our current voting system and the most recent major debate among MPs on the issue.
ONE DEVON SEAT HAS BEEN TORY SINCE 1835
As an aside, we doubt the good people of East Devon think that the “safe seatness” of their own constituency is something that they simply conjured up in a dream. After all, East Devon (and its precursor) has been in Tory hands since the year 1835.
That’s a record, but it is not exceptional. A total of 10% of House of Commons seats haven’t changed hands since the end of World War One, a staggering total of 192 seats not switched since World War Two ended, and “it seems the problem may actually be getting worse” in recent years, concludes Dr. Jess Garland, head of policy and research with the Electoral Reform Society.
To quote again from the Electoral Reform Society: nearly 14 million voters reside in seats where the same party has won every year since 1945.
That’s right; the same party triumphed in the same seats a total of 21 times in a row. Who would follow football if Manchester City topped the Premier League for 21 straight seasons? Or if no team was ever relegated?
ALMOST 50% OF SEATS PREDICTED ACCURATELY
The winner of 316 of 650 seats in the December 2019 general election was so certain that they were confidently and correctly predicted in advance.
“Rigged.” That’s what some commentators have called our electoral system for decades. Safe seats are particularly appalling. Can anyone who seriously endorses democracy also endorse a system where the very same candidate (or party) wins election after election in hundreds of constituencies, where there is little point in actually voting ( for either certain losers or all-but-certain winners), where the importance of your vote depends on where you live, where certain “can’t lose” seats are passed down to party mates or partners almost as if they were part of the last will and testament of political has-beens, and where, to be frank, many MP elections have essentially been turned into coronations?
Under PR, by comparison, the electoral system is radically different. There are no safe seats. Every vote counts. Elections really are competitive. And the number of seats won in Parliament is roughly proportional to the overall vote total.
Safe and non-competitive seats are inevitable with a FPTP system. ‘Rotten Boroughs’ have existed since FPTP came into being in the 1800s and we chose between two local squires in elections.
Let’s compare, for example, FPTP elections to Westminster with the partially proportional elections to the Welsh Senedd. For UK-wide elections to Westminster, the Tories hold more than one hundred safe seats, and this was one main reason why their 43% overall vote share translated into 56% of the seats in the 2019 general election.
By comparison, Plaid Cymru won 21% of the constituency and regional votes in the May 2021 election to the Welsh Senedd. That netted Plaid a total of 13 of the Senedd’s 60 seats, which is exactly 21% of the total seats. None of them was safe.
OUR RESEARCH ON SAFE SEATS
Here’s what we did in our research. We divided all 650 seats into ten columns and ranked them from “least safe” (or most marginal) on the left side of the chart to “most safe” on the right side. For instance, Liverpool Walton’s MP Dan Carden who won with 84.7% of the vote in the 2019 general election, was put into the “most safe” seat column, while narrowly won seats, like Coventry South’s Zara Sultana with a majority of 401, were placed into “most marginal.”
We then correlated the view on PR of each MP. The information used was collected by the campaign group Makes Votes Matter. Here is the overall tally:
- Support PR = 141 MPs (mostly Labour, LibDem, Green, SNP and Plaid);
- Oppose PR = 235 MPs (mostly Tory, but a sizeable Labour contingent);
- Undecided = 69 MPs (mostly Labour);
- No data = 205 MPs (mostly Labour and Tory).
Here is what the graph revealed:
- For MPs that sit in one of the 40% safest seats, only 14% support PR;
- For MPs that sit, by comparison, in the 60% most marginal seats, almost half support PR;
- There is a generally an upward level of support for PR as seats are more marginal.
“BAD FOR BRITAIN” – OR HIS OWN RE-ELECTION?
Warley MP John Spellar matches the overall correlation well. He has held the super-safe Labour seat of Warley for seven terms since it was created for him in 1997. Predictably, Spellar is also a vociferous opponent of PR, calling it “bad for Britain” . In fact, we suspect his real worry is that a fairer voting system such as PR just might be bad at guaranteeing that he would get an eighth consecutive term in Westminster and tenth overall. PR is a pro-voter system and some MPs are appalled by the very concept.
Of course, in some cases there is no direct correlation between opposition to PR and “safe seatness”. MP Paul Blomfield sits in the very safe Labour seat of Sheffield Central, but as a former chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, he supports PR.
A MERE 66 LABOUR MPs HAVE COME OUT FOR PR
Disappointingly, statistics reveals that a mere 66 of 201 Labour MPs have come out publicly in support of PR. This is no doubt related to the fact that 98 Labour seats (or 37% of their 2017 seat total) have not changed hands since World War 2, according to an Electoral Reform Society study.
We should note, however, that support for PR among Labour MPs may have recently increased as a result of the most vocal electoral reform campaign in several decades, the fact that more than one third of Constituency Labour Parties now want Labour to back PR, and the overwhelming pro-PR result in the recent poll of its party members.
Except for a few Tory MPs, all of them support FPTP and they are spread across all ten columns of levels of “safeness”. Their party has ruled in ruled in 29 of the 42 years since 1979 —– that means, nearly 75% of the time —- and so they see their party interest and their own personal interests as coinciding. Maintain FPTP at all costs is the clear Conservative mantra.
Many scratch their heads as why so many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can’t seem to understand that FPTP has been the not so-secret Tory trump card in elections over much of the past four decades (excepting the Blair years) and particularly for last four Labour defeats in a row.
KNOCKING DOWN STRAW MEN
It is safe seat MPs who make the boldest claims about the value of FPTP and the sins of PR. Take Spellar, clearly right-wing Labour. His typical style of argument relies on knocking down straw men. For example in a recent Labour List think piece, he chided the weakness of the PR system in Israel where there are no constituencies. What does that prove? Not a single pro-PR and pro-democracy activist in the UK that we know favours transplanting an Israeli-style PR system to the UK.
Or take the opinion of veteran ten-term Derby South MP Dame Margaret Beckett. She considers that elections based on PR would make “post-election bartering of manifesto commitments become commonplace.” Yet the Tony Blair government, in which Beckett was a cabinet minister, failed to keep its clear 1997 manifesto promise of holding a referendum on electoral reform? The number of times Tory governments elected under FPTP have broken manifesto commitments is legendary. One just happened on 7 September when the Conservatives broke a 2019 manifesto pledge not to raise National Insurance payments.
The pros and cons of different voting systems are seldom debated by Parliament and so the personal views of many MPs are unknown as a result of whipped voting. In the last major debate in 2017, Cornwall MP Steve Double took a prominent role among the pro-FPTP forces.
Space permits only a few examples of Double’s contribution. He told Parliament that “there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that first past the post works well.”
It might work well according to Double, but the voting public don’t agree. A recent poll showed that the current FPTP voting system is held in such low regard that even 53% of Conservative voters want it replaced, along with the 83% of Labour members who want FPTP scrapped.
VERY STRANGE CLAIM FROM A CORNISH TORY
And it is very strange that a Tory MP from Cornwall would make the claim in October 2017, as Double did the same day, that “the wasted vote argument is a particularly pernicious accusation.”
Months earlier in the General Election of that year, a total of 152,428 people voted Conservative in Cornwall, which was 48% of the total votes cast. But 161,928 voted for other parties…or a total of 52%. And what was the allocation of seats in Cornwall as a result? The Tories, including Double, took all six. Under a proportional system, the Tories would have been awarded three seats and the rest shared.
There is one certainty. If we had been part of the 161,928 people in Cornwall who did NOT vote Tory on 8 June 2017, we would definitely feel we had wasted our vote, Double’s views to the contrary.
Double, Beckett and an unknown number of other long-time / safe seat MPs have hired their own partners to work as salaried employees in their offices. This type of patronage was made illegal in 2017, but not made retroactive.
To be clear: Double’s seat of St Austell and Newquay is not as safe as Spellar’s or Beckett’s. He has only been an MP since 2015, but he is definitely part of the Labour and Conservatives “keep our safe seats safe” brigade.
TO WHOM WILL LABOUR LISTEN?
And so at its conference in late September in Brighton, Labour will be facing a very central question that affects voters of all parties:
Will it continue to listen to the Steve Doubles of this world and keep backing a widely discredited FPTP “winner takes all” voting system that has created hundreds of safe seats?
Or will it make the switch to proportional representation voting, which is the policy on voting systems backed by all other social democratic parties in the entire developed world?
We should get an answer 27 or 28 Sept.
David Campbell and Alan Story are activists with the cross-party / no party campaign group GET PR DONE!
IN PROPORTION is the blog of the cross-party/no-party campaign group GET PR DONE! We are campaigning to bring in a much fairer proportional representation voting system. Unless otherwise stated, each blog reflects the personal opinion of its author.