The free market case for proportional representation

Matt Gillow

August 19, 2018

The mantle of electoral reform is rarely taken up by those on the right. The mere threat of it was nearly a deal breaker during the 2010 coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats – indeed, Cameron’s negotiating team only accepted a referendum on the alternative voting system when the threat of letting Gordon Brown slink back into Downing Street was a serious possibility.

The current system of first past the post fits in well with the “strong and stable” narrative. It bars smaller parties from power, typically prevents coalitions, and is pretty easy to understand. These are all good things, right? Wrong. And that’s from a right-wing point of view.

If you claim to be a supporter of competition, then it is only consistent that you should stand against first past the post. Proportional representation – if taken in the same way as you’d take a typical market – promotes challenges to monopolies, drives up standards in order to protect a party’s market share, and puts more power in the hands of the “consumer” or, in this case, the voter. Every vote has that little bit more power, and no seat is safe from a consumer boycott. 

It’s not a major revelation that voting reform actually fits in comfortably with the principles of the Conservative Party, but it’s a notion that’s typically kept quiet. In his fantastic book, Coalition, David Laws notes that neither David Cameron nor George Osborne was particularly in favour of first past the post. Indeed, during the 2015 general election campaign, Conservative MEP Dan Hannan came out strongly as an advocate for change. And it’s not even a recent phenomenon either: Winston Churchill noted that “the present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor any section of the community.”

In recent times, the Conservative Party has been the best vehicle free-market policies, but first past the post isn’t even all that good for the Tories. Pockets of voters in Labour heartlands are overlooked and the system itself has failed to produce a convincingly stable government since 2005. With first past the post, under-represented Conservative voters fail to see their views and concerns acted on locally – and the same goes for Labour voters in the South East, for example.

Perhaps, then, the time has come for Conservatives to actually apply free market principles to our electoral system. Imagine two companies consolidating a duopoly over air travel, for example. Would we look the other way, and consider it no harm done? Absolutely not.

And if we wouldn’t tolerate duopolies in the economy for the sake of fair competition and choice, we shouldn’t accept it in our electoral system. The Conservative Action for Electoral Reform campaign group states on its website: “we need an electoral system that can reflect changes in public opinion as effectively as the free market can adapt to changing economic circumstances.”

Only by breaking up the Labour/Conservative duopoly over British politics can we foster true competition in our democracy, and in so doing giving smaller parties a credible voice and forcing the two major parties to adapt and improve. We know full well that competition drives up standards and drives down undesirable practices – failing to apply that knowledge to our electoral system comes across as self-serving and ignorant.

In his aforementioned piece, Dan Hannan argues that change is coming, and to refuse to take ownership of that change is politically naive. Benjamin Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act is one such example of Conservatives embracing electoral change. It didn’t backfire then, and it won’t backfire now.

Electoral reform means competition, choice and true democracy – views that free marketeers have always championed. It’s time to start being consistent with our beliefs and applying them to democratic reform, rather than continuing to support entrenched partisan interests.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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