Why do some people want to change the way we vote?
A lot has been said over the past few weeks about democracy: whether it is a threat to it as a concept to challenge the nation’s ‘Brexit’ verdict, whether we should be happy about Theresa May assuming office as Prime Minister without a mandate from the public, and in some ways the most contentious – whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed to compete in a Labour leadership contest. However, many of these concerns pale in comparison to the perceived unfairness which many feel is built into our current electoral system.
Our voting system is based on a concept called ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP). In a process which is probably familiar to most people in the UK, the nation is divided up into a number of different constituencies. There are 650 constituencies and each elects a Member of Parliament to represent them. Each contest is won by the candidate who receives the highest number of votes, regardless of the size of the winning margin, and then they receive a seat in the House of Commons.
Whichever party (or coalition of parties) has enough MPs can then form a majority government, which happens if they control more than half of the total number of seats, though in practice it is slightly less as an Irish party called Sinn Féin do not take up their seats in the Commons. The system is pretty simple, but opponents argue that it is not suitable in the 21st Century and discriminates against smaller parties.
What is the problem with ‘First Past The Post’?
A key issue that is often highlighted with FPTP is that only the victors in each constituency have theirvoices heard. In the constituency of Loughborough, Nicky Morgan MP received over 9,000 more votes than her nearest rival, allowing her to win the seat. It could be argued, however, that Morgan was the choice of only 49.5% of voters, so the desires of the remaining 50.5% (more than half of those who voted) were not met. This is one of many factors which has led to some people becoming disillusioned with the idea of engaging with politics.
One process which could address this issue would be the introduction of Alternative Vote (AV). Under this sort of system, which is similar to that used in the Exec Elections run by LSU but without a ‘RON’ option, voters would number each candidate in order of preference. The lowest polling candidate is ‘eliminated’ in each of a number of rounds and their voters’ second preferences are passed onto the remaining candidates until one candidate has over 50% of the vote. This system was rejected in a referendum in 2011, but its proponents believe that it would be of benefit where parties share similar goals and would otherwise risk the prospect of ‘splitting’ their votes so that neither is successful against a common rival with a differing ideology.
Southport offers an even more stark illustration of how some people could perceive their votes to have been wasted in the 2015 election. The Liberal Democrat candidate who won this seat received just 31% of the vote, giving the remaining voters plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied with the result.
You may also notice from the graphic that several, less mainstream parties received a lot of support, despite not doing well nationally when it comes to Parliamentary representation. Despite being rewarded with just one seat in Parliament each, the Green Party and UKIP were supported by 3.8% and 12.6% of the voting population respectively. Although this doesn’t sound like much, they, along with the Liberal Democrats (who ended up with 7.9% of votes but only 8 MPs) do have reason to be aggrieved when you consider that, despite being the choice of a mere 4.7% of the UK electorate, the Scottish Nationalist Party were able to claim 56 seats in the Commons.
These anomalies are the result of some parties receiving a lot of support over a number of different constituencies, but only being in the majority on rare occasions. The SNP’s runaway success was due to their voters being concentrated exclusively in Scotland (which has quite a low population density relative to the rest of the UK), but was sufficient for them to win almost all of the seats in that nation. High Labour support in densely populated regions, when juxtaposed with Conservative voters based predominantly (but not exclusively) in more rural areas also meant that, despite winning over just 6.5% less of the UK’s voters, Labour were rewarded with almost 100 fewer seats than their victorious rivals.
Whilst it is generally accepted that First Past The Post allows areas to be represented by the most suitable candidate, its detractors say that it doesn’t work on a national level when it comes to reflecting the number of people who actually support each party. Many instead believe that the way forward is a system known as Proportional Representation, which Labour MP Clive Lewis argues gives people “power to speak” and is closer to true democracy than our current electoral system.
Proportional Representation (PR) is a system used in many countries throughout Europe and beyond. It means, simply, that seats in Parliament are awarded in line with the number of votes which each party receives. A PR system is used to elect MSPs to the Scottish Parliament: each constituency selects a representative using an FPTP system and a number of ‘Regional MSPs’ are elected at the same time, with a formula used to assign them on a proportional basis, ensuring parliamentary representation from a wider variety of parties.
This is how the House of Commons could have ended up looking, had a PR system been used (for all of the parties who received over 99,000 votes) in 2015.
As you can see, it’s quite a different scenario: Labour and the Conservatives both have fewer seats, while the Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens all have significantly more. The SNP would lose seats under this system, but they are advocates for PR nonetheless: Tommy Shepherd MP described the notion that they won 95% of Scottish seats with only 50% of the vote in the country as “ridiculous” and added that he would “gladly” give up his seat in pursuit of a more democratic system.
Looking at the bottom row in both images, you will see a band of more multi-coloured characters. These represent regional parties in both Northern Ireland (home of the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin) as well as Plaid Cymru. Their vote shares would be affected by PR, and it is worth considering how regional representation could be ensured if PR were to be introduced. There would certainly be a need to maintain representation for each constituency, but if the addition of regional representatives (à la Scotland) were to be considered, the size of the Government would also need to be taken into account in order to avoid excessive bureaucracy.
Critics of PR argue that it is a recipe for ineffective governments, as it is harder for any one party to win an outright majority. This would have been the case in 2015 when, had PR been used, the Tories would only have won 243 seats, so may have relied on the support of UKIP to secure a majority. Whilst the UK’s opinion on coalition governments is still up for debate (with many students being understandably critical due to tuition fee increases), examples of more popular regimes can be seen elsewhere and include the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Große Koalition.
The increased likelihood of a coalition administration excites some, however: both UKIP and the Green Party would surely be interested in allowing their voices to be heard from a position of power. PR could also benefit these two opposing parties, as an increased likelihood of either actually having a say in running the country would silence the criticisms which they (and the Lib Dems, to an extent) often encounter, that “there’s no chance they’ll win, so there’s no point in voting for them.”
Conclusion: will we see a new system in future?
Whilst bringing in Proportional Representation would undoubtedly bring benefits by better representing individuals’ views, we may be unlikely to see it any time soon. Whilst a Conservative government is in office, calls for a new system look like they are unlikely to be heard, simply because the current system benefits the incumbent party. The Conservatives are the primary beneficiaries of a system which makes it easier for them to remain in office despite only winning the support of 36.9% of voters. Ignoring pleas for PR would be the latest in a series of steps taken in order to hold onto power which include moving constituency boundaries and reducing funding for the official Opposition.
Some of those on the left who are in favour of PR (including a pressure group called Compass) argue that one way to achieve it would be to form a ‘Progressive Alliance’ of likeminded parties to take on the Conservatives. Such a coalition could include long-term advocates of PR such as the Liberal Democrats and Green Party, although support would also be required from Labour and possibly the SNP in order to get enough seats to win a parliamentary majority. This is seen as an exciting prospect by many, though there are undoubtedly questions to be answered about how such a motley band of parties would get along, both with one another and (if they were to win a majority) in Parliament.
– By Liam David Hopley