Lessons from the UK election

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Published Jul 9, 2024


Douglas Gibson

Many clever people in South Africa complain about our proportional election (PR) system. They do so on the grounds that the party bosses and not the electorate control MPs the way they did in the constituency system, such as we had before 1994.

I believe the PR system is infinitely more democratic and vastly preferable in the way in which it reflects the will of the people.

The British general election illustrates my point. Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer and his Labour Party secured one of the biggest majorities in British parliamentary history. The Conservatives had their worst result in two centuries.

Labour, in a 59% poll, obtained 34% of the vote. The Conservatives received 24% of the vote. Labour won 412 seats out of 650. The Conservatives won 121 seats.

In a PR system, like ours, Labour would have won 221 seats, far less than a majority, and the Conservatives would have won 156 seats.

Considering the low percentage poll (like ours), the Labour government, with an overwhelming majority in Parliament, actually has the support of only 20% of the electorate. That is surely not an impressive mandate.

More interesting is the position of the Reform Party and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems). Reform, led by Nigel Farage (memorably described by Lord Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, as a “saloon bar bore”), received 14% of the vote. It won five seats.

The Lib Dems received 12% of the votes and won 72 seats. This cannot be described as an expression of the will of the people. In our PR system, Reform would have won 91 seats and the Lib Dems would have secured 78 seats.

A lesson from this is that our PR system is more democratic and more representative of the democratic will of the people. We must cherish it.

An equally important lesson is that individual MPs must be much more responsive to the people. The parties receive constituency allowances. MPs must be allocated to constituencies determined by their parties and then held accountable for the area concerned.

When I was the MP nominated by the DA to look after Midrand and Sandton North, I acted exactly as though the area had elected me to Parliament. I did all the things a constituency MP must do. I had an office in the Midrand Mall and voters seeking assistance were welcomed. I had the advantage of having been the MPC for Benoni for seven years from 1970, the MPC for Bezuidenhout for nine years, and the MP for Yeoville for three years.

There is a myth that constituency MPs are much more independent of the so-called “party bosses” than PR representatives. This was certainly never the case in South Africa before 1994. Any MP following a line different from that of the National Party, for example, was on his way out, and it seldom happened.

In Britain, MPs attack their party, its policies, the leader, and their colleagues. South Africa has a responsible party system and it is not and never has been possible to compare it with the UK.

One of the major causes of the Conservative defeat, according to observers, was the warfare that raged within the party by the various wings. There is nothing that switches voters off as much as internal party battles that place ideological and other differences before the interest of the ordinary citizen.

We need to improve the performance of Parliament, the Cabinet, and of MPs. We do not need to change our PR system.

Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand.

The Star