In this article, Jack explores the potential for electoral reform in the UK, citing the flaws in our electoral system and suggesting what it could be replaced with.
The Case for Reform in UK General Elections
With the Brexit process, as well as international scandals involving Trump or Russia overwhelming British media in recent periods, this undoubtedly means that other issues must fall to the wayside. Personally, I believe that one of these such issues which has been unjustly overshadowed, is the need for reform of our First Past the Post (FPTP) system, used in general elections. Although the AV referendum was held on this issue in 2011, the debate over this issue still ought to continue for three key reasons. Firstly, the referendum had a ludicrously low turnout of only 42% thereby weakening its democratic legitimacy. Secondly, the public dissatisfaction with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, following the controversial raising of tuition fees by the coalition to £9,000 a year, doomed the chances of AV by association with them. Finally, and most importantly, the FPTP system is still inherently unfair. As the Electoral Reform Society puts it, “The way we elect our MPs is bad for voters, bad for governance and bad for democracy.”
FPTP, as a majoritarian system, means that the candidate with the greatest number of votes in a constituency is elected as MP. This means that all the other votes which do not end up electing the MP are wasted and so huge amounts of people in a constituency are bound to feel, and indeed be, unrepresented. It is estimated that half of all votes cast in the 2015 election did not end up electing an MP and so did not matter. The person who epitomizes all the problems of the FPTP system has to be Alasdair McDonnell MP. This former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party holds the record for the lowest proportion of the vote help by a successful MP. Just 24.5% of his Belfast South constituency voted for him in 2015 yet he was still able to become the MP for that area, because he had more votes than any other candidate. Whilst this admittedly may be an extreme example, the fact that we have an electoral system that can produce a result that ignores more than 75% of the voters shows that something is deeply wrong. This problem of wasted votes is especially significant in safe seats as it means that just because of the postcode lottery, voters whose ideas do not line up with the majority of the people in their constituency may as well not be able to vote, as the result of that particular seat is never going to be close enough for their votes to matter.
Even though these problems are symptomatic of FPTP, many still argue that it is the best option for an electoral system since it gives a strong MP-constituency link and most of the time results in strong government with a majority of seats in parliament rather than coalitions, typical of proportional systems. The MP-constituency link is important since it allows people within any area to know they have someone elected by their local area whose job it is to represent the constituency in Westminster. Also, the typical strong majority is important as it allows the government to pass their manifesto pledges easily, since they have been voted for in general election. Clearly, these factors are significant and ought to be preserved through the electoral system used. However, the facts of the matter are, even though FPTP does achieve these goals it does not change the fact that it is intrinsically unfair. Also, it is a myth that these criteria cannot be achieved through use of a more proportional and fair system instead. The Additional Member System (AMS) is an electoral system which has one vote for constituency representatives and another vote for “additional members” to make parliament more proportional and is currently used in elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies. The AMS system works by having one vote for a local representative under FPTP as before which decides a fixed portion of all MPs i.e. enough for every constituency to have an MP linked to it. However, there is also a second vote for a party rather than a candidate. This vote is used on a national level to decide the remaining MPs from party lists via the D’Hondt method, to make parliament as close to proportional and representative as possible.
The reason why the introduction of a semi-proportional system like this in the UK would be an improvement is because it would give the benefits of both non-proportional and proportional systems. Namely, the strong constituency link would be unchanged and all the second votes would definitely factor in deciding some form of representative. This means that even if a voter feels like their first vote is redundant, such as in a safe constituency, they will still be able to have at least some say in the people that represent them overall through the second national vote. Furthermore, in recent history the trend of FPTP producing strong governments has undoubtedly waned, given that it has produced a succession of governments with either small or indeed non-existent majorities since Gordon Brown (who himself never won a general election). AMS would also avoid the problems of unstable coalitions as has been seen in countries like Italy, since the two major parties would most likely continue to dominate, meaning multi-party coalitions wouldn’t be necessary.
Therefore, as other political issues take the forefront, the FPTP system continues to do a disservice to the British people under the pretence of being a necessary evil, when AMS seems able to keep the benefits of FPTP while allowing every person who has the right to vote, the right to feel that their vote matters. A more proportional system is something that is unlikely to happen, given that the two major parties would never advocate for a system that could damage their own electoral success. Still, this does not justify the unrepresentative state of the House of Commons in terms of MPs from minor parties and differing viewpoints who are deeply needed, perhaps now more so than ever.
By Jack Walker