Prior to the general election in May a poll indicated that 61% of people favoured electoral reform to allow smaller parties fairer representation in Parliament, but unlike most other polls prior to the election it was based in reality.
Following the election, which was slammed as “the most disproportionate in British electoral history”, there was renewed support for the electoral reformation. Five smaller parties (who received 29.6% of the vote between them) handed in a petition signed by nearly half a million people asking the government to reform the electoral system by 2020.
Despite the public support, the bid ran out of steam (read: was ignored) and has received very little media coverage in the past few months amid a tense Labour leadership election, a refugee crisis and Rolf Harris overdosing on chocolate.
Today, however, the issue has reared its head again thanks to Jonathan Reynolds MP. The ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill’, which that seeks to reform elections by getting rid of the first past the post (FPTP) system, was placed before Parliament. So should we change the system?
Let’s be clear, no electoral system is perfect, but what needs to be established is whether the first past the post (FPTP) system currently employed in the UK general elections will be fit for purpose in 2020 and beyond.
One defence of FPTP used by David Cameron in 2011 is that “the candidate who gets the most votes wins”. This is true, but that does not mean that that candidate is popular, this year in South Belfast the winner only received 24.5% of the vote and more than half of MPs were elected received a minority in their constituency.
The argument made by the prime minister is also disingenuous, suggesting that the general election is all about individual MPs, but the fact that in 2013 only 22% of people could name their MP reveals the obvious truth. The general election is about which parties people want to run the country. On a national level FPTP produces major discrepancies between votes cast and seats won (see table), this time the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens got robbed. Moreover, the Conservative victory is a false mandate, from 36.8% of the vote, they got 50.9% of the seats and 100% of the power. In fact this is so common that the last time a party gained a majority of the popular vote was 1931, a result brought about by the desperation of the Great Depression and the massive enfranchisements in 1918 and 1928 of working class men and all women over 21.
|Party||Percentage of Vote||Seats||Percentage of Seats||Votes per Seat|
Data from the Electoral Commission. Green represents disproportionate gains and red represents disproportionate losses.
Another argument used to defend FPTP is that it produces strong governments with representatives are accountable to their constituents.
The first part of this argument is no longer true in the UK, 2010 produced a hung Parliament and 2015 was very close to doing the same. People’s desire to vote for smaller parties has not waned and FPTP essentially offers voters a dichotomy of large parties rather than a broad political spectrum that reflects their views. This means that the more people vote for what they want, the less likely their vote is to count. Political apathy soon follows. Conversely, the Scottish Parliament has used AMS since it reconvened in 1999, largely as a stitch-up to prevent the SNP ever gaining a stable majority government and we all know how well that plan worked out.
Secondly, the government is only really accountable to people in the seats it holds and marginal seats, which are where elections are really decided. Opposition safe seats are often ignored when it comes to policy decisions (e.g. working class areas of the north under Conservative governments) and safe seats in general have been described as “electoral deserts” where voters are “either irrevocably damned or sufficiently saved as to qualify for being taken for granted.” (The Jenkins Report 1998).
FPTP has been declared unfit for purpose on various occasions (here and here and in a video with animals here), but if we decide to get rid of FPTP we have to replace it and for the sake of brevity we’ll assume that we’re going to stick with democracy (for now) and have a more representative system.
We’ve been here before though remember? It was 2010 and people still liked the Lib Dems (as much as people can like a political party without actually electing them), they had promised us proportional representation but “a miserable little compromise” occurred and a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was agreed. There are sufficient flaws in the AV system that combined with a well organised, yet negative, campaign for the status quo, the “No” vote crushed the “Yes” vote.
Fortunately, the bill proposed the additional member system (AMS) rather than the unloved AV. In the AMS system voters are given two votes, the first is for a constituency representative (e.g. an MP), just like in FPTP, and the second is for a party in a larger group of constituencies (regional party list). Once the constituency representatives are elected, the second vote is used to elect additional members (hence the name) via proportional representation, essentially smoothing out the discrepancies caused by FPTP.
The advantage of this system is that it maintains constituency representation, but gives everyone an effective vote. This leads to less tactical voting and produces far more representative results than FPTP. However, some discrepancies may be too large for it to smooth out, giving the impression that AMS simply papers over the cracks in FPTP. Moreover, it is worth remembering that AMS produces members who are not accountable to any constituency, only to their party leadership.
These flaws make the AMS system far from perfect, but its ability to reflect a broader spectrum of views makes it far more relevant to contemporary UK politics than FPTP. Unfortunately, as a Private Members’ Bill, the method by which backbench MPs propose bills, today’s bid for AMS was always destined to fail and that’s just what it did. Gone are the days when this type of bill used to get through reforms considered too sensitive for the Government to touch, like the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion and the end of the death penalty.
For now, we find ourselves stuck in a catch-22 situation. Under FPTP governments are normally Labour or Conservative majorities with an artificial mandate, these parties consciously deny voting reform in order to protect their electoral prospects and voters cannot get rid of the system unless the government they elect via FPTP approves it. Persuading the leaders of these parties to take up the cause for electoral reform is like getting turkeys to vote for Christmas and it is the hopelessness of this task that stifles what should be a lively national debate.
Interestingly though, today’s bill was presented by a Labour MP and the issue of electoral reform will be a good test of just how far Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics” will extend. The public pressure and the electoral evidence is mounting against FPTP and strong cases are being made for AMS or the single transferable vote (STV) (here and another animal video here). The pressure can only go so far though, for a genuine change to be implemented a leader of a large party needs to stand up and be counted and that’s exactly the point:
“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”