This is not the system we need to reform

I am uneasy with the present clamour from all sides of the Opposition for an immediate General Election. It is based on the spurious ground that Rishi Sunak has no mandate to be Prime Minister. In fact, he has all the mandate he needs – he commands the confidence of the House. He does so because he inherits the mandate his party won at the 2019 General Election. The question that the Opposition would do better to address is how that mandate was acquired.

It is a curious but indisputable fact that Rishi Sunak’s appointment to the office of Prime Minister was more democratic than the election to the same office that he lost to Liz Truss a scant seven weeks ago, even though the electorate in Sunak’s victory was restricted to 357 people while Truss was elected by 80,000 of around 180,000 voters to Sunak’s 60,000. The difference lies in who those voters are and what authority they can claim.

Unlike ancient Athens, where the electorate was small enough to vote directly on any matter in person at the Agora, the United Kingdom is a representative democracy. Its 46.5 million voters, divided into geographical constituencies, return 650 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. There, they pass legislation and hold the government to account. That government is formed from among their number and led by whoever commands the confidence of the House – in practical terms, whoever can muster sufficient votes to pass the budget on which any programme of legislation depends. That person is generally the leader of the party whose manifesto gained the widest support in the election – in terms of MPs returned, not votes (an important point to which we shall return).

It is neither unreasonable nor undemocratic to ask the members of the majority parliamentary party (who each have a personal mandate to represent their constituents) to decide who should lead them in a system that requires only that the person who forms the government enjoy the confidence of the House. What is both unreasonable and wholly undemocratic is to leave that choice to a secretive organisation whose sole qualification for membership is to pay one’s subscription (and there is no effective scrutiny of applications, as the news organisation Tortoise demonstrated when they successfully registered four fake identities (including the late Margaret Thatcher under her maiden name and two foreign nationals) as members for the latest leadership contest).

Had the previous leadership contest been restricted to the vote of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, Sunak would already have won, since he gained 137 votes to Truss’s 113. Instead, a powerless British public had to endure a needlessly-protracted contest (it lasted nearly a fortnight longer than Truss’s calamitous premiership), watching helplessly as she wooed the Conservative Party membership with wild-eyed policies of tax-cuts for the rich and other things designed to appeal to their particular prejudices. Truss was duly elected and with her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced perhaps the single most disastrous set of policies ever advanced by any Prime Minister. The markets did not like it and neither, crucially, did the Parliamentary Party. In a short time, Kwarteng was gone, replaced by Jeremy Hunt, a choice imposed on Truss by the Parliamentary Party. He proceeded to reverse almost the entirety of the proposals that Truss and Kwarteng had put forward. That he was able to do so was because he had the support of the Parliamentary Party whereas Truss did not. Truss, reduced to a mere puppet, resigned.

What that demonstrates, I think, is that the current system actually works. Truss failed because she did not have the one mandate that a Prime Minister requires – the ability to command the confidence of the House – despite having been elected party leader. Without it, she was unable to form an effective government and had to resign. Sunak does enjoy the confidence of the House and should be able to form an effective government because he inherits the mandate that his party won at the 2019 General Election – and it was good to hear him state that the mandate was given to the party, not to any one individual (as the mendacious Jake Mogg had tried to pretend).

However, how that mandate is gained gives cause for concern. In the 2019 election, the Conservative party won 43.63% of the votes cast. Remarkably, the combined total of the traditional opposition parties, Labour (32.08%) and Liberal Democrat (11.55%) was exactly the same – 43.63%; yet the Conservatives were rewarded with 365 of 650 seats – 56.2% – while the other two won only 42.8% of the seats between them, Labour winning 202 ( 31.1%) and the Liberal Democrats a mere 11 (1.7%). In other words, for an identical share of the vote, the Conservatives gained 152 more seats than Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

That the Conservatives’ majority was reduced to 80 (still more than enough to pass any legislative programme) was largely due to the similarly disproportionate success of the SNP, whose 30.6% share of the Scottish vote was rewarded with 48 of the 59 seats they contested, a staggering 81.35%. This allows an instructive comparison with the 2021 Holyrood elections to the devolved Scottish parliament which uses a form of proportional representation. There, in the 73 first-past-the-post seats, a 47.7% share of the vote netted the SNP 84.9% of the seats, 62; however, this was tempered by the regional or ‘list’ vote, where their 40.3% share netted them only 2 of the available 56 seats, a mere 3.5%. Overall, the SNP won 64 of 129 seats, or 49.6%, with an average vote share (constituency + regional) of 44.02%. However, the more telling figure is the close approximation between the first past the post constituency vote of 47.7% and the overall number of seats won, 49.6%. Put simply, the SNP in 2021 won nearly half the vote but did not get an overall majority in parliament, whereas Boris Johnson’s conservatives in 2019 fell well short of half yet gained a majority of 80 seats. At the same time, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with an identical percentage of the vote, won 152 fewer seats.

This points to the real reform that is needed. Instead of calling for a General Election, something they cannot achieve without the complicity of some Conservative MPs (in other words, if Sunak loses the confidence of the House) the combined opposition parties should aim for something that is within their grasp – reform of the voting system. They should each agree to make that a manifesto commitment, and to further their chances of being able to implement it, they should make an informal pact to favour tactical voting in seats where that can oust the Tories.

As I discussed in this piece Johnson has shown the vulnerability of an unwritten constitution that assumes honour and decency when confronted by a Prime Minister who has neither, especially when that Prime Minister has an unassailable majority. We have had a very narrow escape from descending into a form of oligarchic fascism. That is a risk we cannot afford to take again. The best way of avoiding any repetition is to reform the voting system.

There is a real chance that the Tories can recover some ground under Sunak. The worst possible thing would be for Labour to think that, after the disasters of Truss and Johnson, the way lies open for them to form the next government without any need to cooperate with the other progressive parties.