Electoral Reform in the UK: The time is now

Source: The Electoral Commission.
Source: The Electoral Commission.

The 2015 general election result was not only shocking but served as a stark reminder that electoral reform, now more than ever, is a vital issue that has to be addressed in British politics.

This week, the Electoral Reform Society published their report on the election and found that it was the most “disproportionate result in British election history.” Until the current system is changed the British electorate will continue to have limited representation and millions of votes will be wasted.

The majoritarian First Past the Post (FPTP) system has again failed to reflect voters and produce a fair result. Let’s first of all start with the Conservatives, who were able to win a majority of seats with a minority of the vote (36.9%). In essence they now have a majority government despite two-thirds of voters not choosing them. As Andrew Rawnsley importantly points out, when you factor in overall turnout, the Tories have the backing of less than a quarter of the registered electorate. This hardly constitutes a strong mandate to govern.

Votes versus seats at the 2015 General Election under FPTP (Source: ERS).
Votes versus seats at the 2015 General Election under FPTP (Source: ERS).

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) landslide victory while impressive, again emphasises just how broken the current system is. They won 50% of the vote in Scotland but came away with 95% of the seats. Consequently, the 50% of the Scottish electorate who voted for a unionist party will be represented by only 3 MPs. What’s even more staggering about the nature of the SNP’s victory is when you compare it to the electoral fortunes of both the Green Party and UKIP.

UKIP won nearly four million votes and had 12.6% of the vote share, but only managed to return a single MP. Similarly the Greens quadrupled their support to over a million votes (3.8% vote share) and again were only rewarded with one parliamentary seat. Along with the severe disproportion in the SNP result the DUP won fewer than 190,000 votes (0.6%), but still ended up with 7 more MPs than both UKIP and the Greens. The Liberal Democrats are all but dead and buried, claiming only 7 seats despite winning over one million more votes than the SNP. This only proves further that the system is broken and that the multi-party politics emerging within the UK is being strained due to the confines placed on it by FPTP.

The ERS report calculated the changes in the 2015 result had the election been run under Single Transferable Vote (STV), List Proportional Representation (PR) or Alternative Vote (AV).

GE2015 results under different electoral systems (Source: ERS).
GE2015 results under different electoral systems (Source: ERS).
Percentage of seats won in the GE2015 by UK political parties under different electoral systems (Source: ERS).
Percentage of seats won in the GE2015 by UK political parties under different electoral systems (Source: ERS).

Many will note that a PR system would result in UKIP being a significant political player in Westminster (something I and many others definitely wouldn’t want), but UKIP’s predicament at this election could just as easily be the party you support come 2020 – such is the unpredictable nature of FPTP. For a UKIP candidate to be elected, in the 2015 election, they had to win an average of 3.8 million votes while an SNP candidate only had to manage just under 26,000.

Of course these results only further amplify the ongoing issue of FPTP and the disproportionality it causes between seats and votes won. However, this election was no different than those that came before it; bigger parties clearly benefit from an archaic electoral system while smaller parties suffer as a consequence.

The 2005 general election is a perfect example, where the Liberal Democrats were again the main losers. They only managed 9% of the seats despite claiming 22% of the vote, meaning their near six million votes only translated into 62 parliamentary seats. Conversely, Labour won 356 seats (55%) from only 35% of the vote while the Tories had 32% vote share but won just 198 seats. In essence, the problems related to FPTP are hardly a new phenomenon.

The report also found that one in ten voters were not voting for their preferred candidate, but rather were putting an ‘X’ next to another candidate in order to keep someone else out. In cases like this voters are essentially admitting defeat in realising their first choice candidate has no chance of winning under FPTP.

The other stark and frankly embarrassing realisation is that the rest of Europe have reformed their electoral systems so as to give voters more representation.

Italy are the most recent country to change their system after voting in favour to introduce a form of List PR. The map below shows Britain and France (in red) as the only EU member states still using majoritarian systems for their parliamentary elections. Aside from Germany, Hungary and Lithuania who use mixed systems (in green), the other 23 EU states (in blue) use some form of PR for their lower house elections.

EU Member States and the electoral systems they use for parliamentary elections.

It can be argued that with the exception of France, voters in the other 26 member states enjoy better representation in parliamentary elections than those in the UK. With the landscape of UK politics constantly shifting, now may be the best and most important time to push for electoral reform. By introducing a more proportional system you increase representation – surely more voices in politics is a positive thing?

Although reform is an issue that needs to be worked on immediately, it should not be rushed. That said, there are clear alternatives to FPTP, many of which are already currently being used in other UK elections. For example, STV (the favourite of the ERS) is already used in Scottish local elections as well as Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Similarly a closed List PR system is used for European Union elections not to mention the Additional Members System in Scottish Parliamentary elections and the Supplementary Vote in London Mayoral elections. With a plethora of electoral systems being used elsewhere in these islands it’s baffling that Westminster has not followed suit – baffling but not wholly surprising given that FPTP has been very kind to the two main parties for decades.

There is increasing pressure for David Cameron and the Tories to deliver constitutional change during this government and electoral reform makes up a significant part of that. This was particularly apparent after a petition calling for electoral reform with 477,000 signatures was delivered by a cross-party group to 10 Downing Street.

The Leaders’ Debates highlighted that the UK, now more than ever, has a multi-party system. As Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of ERS, said when appearing on the BBC’s Daily Politics:

 

“We’re trying to cram multi-party politics into an old two-party system.”

 

As a result the system is straining and we are being left with unfair and unpredictable election results and unsurprisingly a lack of representation. The current system worked fine in the 1950s and 60s when 80-95% of the electorate voted for the two main parties, but unfortunately for Labour and the Conservatives, times have changed.

Electoral reform may be back on the agenda and have the backing of numerous people, but that does not in any way guarantee that change will occur. One of the main reasons the current system has stayed in place for so long is that it has continuously benefited the Labour or Tory government of the day. The present is no different, with FPTP strongly favouring the Tories in the most recent election, it’s difficult to see any reason that would persuade David Cameron and the party to push for a reform of this archaic and out of date system.

If you feel strongly about changing the electoral system then add your name to the change.org petition.

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