The Urgency of Electoral Reform

In the months since the 2015 General Election in the UK there has been a debate raging around electoral reform and the state of British democracy. Many claims have been thrown around by both sides, such as that we are living under a Tory dictatorship, and that there is nothing wrong with the current electoral system. While we aren’t living in a dictatorship, and it is undeniable that the Tories did indeed win the election in May, it is indeed an undemocratic and unrepresentative system. Leaving aside the House of Lords and the Monarchy for the time being (they are important issues and very much connected to this, it is too complex to go into now), I feel it is important that the issue of electoral reform in the House of Commons is seriously discussed.

The current Conservative government is pushing forward a number of measures to supposedly reform the voting system, most prominent of which are the changes to the electoral register, resulting in almost 2 million people, many likely to vote Labour, being knocked off the register, and the changes to constituencies, creating more safe Tory seats and while reducing the likely majorities in many traditionally Labour seats in 2020. The latter is only as significant as it currently is because of of the first past the post system. It will effectively make it easier for the Tories to maintain a majority, or at least a plurality, of seats even with a reduced share of the vote. The allocation of seats in the House of Commons is already biased towards larger parties such as Labour and the Conservatives, but such reforms may well make this even worse.

At present our voting system in general elections is based around constituencies, with the idea being that people vote for a candidate to represent their constituency. The basic idea behind this system is also one of the main arguments against proportional representation, however the very concept is fundamentally flawed, and this has long been apparent. Do people vote for the candidate, or do they vote for the political party. The Electoral Reform Society estimated that going into the 2010 General Election, 382 out of 650 seats (59%) were safe seats, and in 2015 they estimated that 364 (56%) were safe seats. This indicated that in the majority of constituencies, much of the electorate will vote for the same party, regardless of who the actual candidate is. Of course this isn’t always true, as was seen in May 2015 when traditionally safe Labour seats were lost to the SNP and traditionally safe Liberal Democrat seats were lost to the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives. Pratibha Naithani, professor of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, suggests that the same has very much been true in India, commenting that “Voting according to party ideology has been followed all these years… one bothers to see who is the candidate standing. This year, we should vote for the candidate; ensure that we know who we are voting for.” On top of this, studies of Irish general elections by Mair (1987), Sinnott (1995) and King (2000) suggest that up to half of voters give their first preferences based on candidate-centred reasons, however election result data continues to indicate an incredible stability in party support (Mair & Marsh, 2004), which may well be because in Single Transferable Vote systems there is often more than one candidate from a party running in a constituency, and so voters have a choice between two or more candidates of the same party. There is little evidence that a significant proportion of the British electorate votes for specific candidates, and only 13 independent or minor party MPs have been elected since 1950. Seven of these were the sitting MP for their seat, or had previously been an MP, almost all of whom lost their seats soon after. One, Peter Law, was a sitting Member of the Welsh Assembly for the constituency they were then elected as an MP for, and another, Dai Davies, who succeeded Law, had been his electoral agent. Three, including George Galloway, previously a Labour MP, were elected on almost entirely single issue platforms. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party was a sitting Member of the European Parliament and was also Leader of the Green Party at the time of her election. Four were elected in a two-way race, or with one or more major parties standing down in their favour. This lack of support for individual candidates as opposed to support for parties was played quite spectacularly by the fall of Mike Hancock of Porstmouth South in the 2015 General Election. Despite having been an MP for this seat twice under the Social Democratic and Liberal Democrat banners for a combined 21 years, and was the sitting MP at the time, when he stood as an independent candidate in 2015 he went from 45.9% as a LibDem in 2010 to only 1.7%, while his former party managed to hold onto 22.3% of the vote, coming in second.

If we take the assumption that people are voting for a local representative, we still have to consider the fact that our current First Past The Post system is tailored to a two-party, or at most a three-party, system. Even during the 1800s this produced in many instance of the distribution of seats being skewered in favour of the minority party. Two elections in this era are particularly significant due to the scale of this. In 1874 the Liberals won 52% of the vote, with a 7.7% lead on the Conservatives, but secured only 242 seats to the Conservative Party’s 350, giving the Conservatives a 23 seat majority. In 1852 the Whigs, who later merged with the Peelites and Radicals to become the Liberal Party, won 57.9% of the vote, with a 16% lead on the Conservatives, but this also resulted in a Conservative majority government. Similar to these two elections, the 1947 general election saw the Whigs win 53.8% of the vote with an 11.1% lead, but they only won 271 seats while the Conservatives won 325, four seats short of a majority. The Whigs only managed to form a government in 1947 because of internal divisions within the Conservatives.

This could easily be ignored if there weren’t various examples of this in the 20th and even 21st centuries. In 1910 the Conservatives had a lead on the Liberals of 3.6% having secured 46.7% of the vote, but the Liberals remained in government with 2 seats more than the Conservatives, managing to maintain their power with support from the Irish Parliamentary Party who had won 1.2% of the vote and 71 seats. The combined share of the vote of the Liberals and Irish Parliamentary Party still didn’t match or beat the Conservative share of the vote. In contrast to the IPP, the new Labour Party secured 7.2% of the vote, but only 40 seats. The second general election that year produced almost identical results. In 1924 and 1929 Labour managed to form their first two minority governments with support from the Liberals, despite the Conservatives winning the most votes. The second government actually saw Labour win the most seats for the first time, despite coming second in terms of votes. 1951 saw Labour win the most votes, but the Conservatives won the majority of the seats, while in 1974 the roles were reversed with the Conservatives winning the most votes and Labour winning the most seats.

We are now living in a multi-party democracy with an electoral system meant for only two. This has been reflected dramatically in the three most recent general elections (2005, 2010, 2015). 2010 resulted in the Conservatives and Labour receiving significantly higher shares of the seats than their share of the vote, with roughly a ten point difference for both. In contrast, the LibDems received 23% of the vote, but only 8.8% of the seats, a difference of over 14%. In the same election, UKIP, the BNP and the Greens received a combined 6% and over 1.5 million votes, and one seat (Greens), while the SNP, Sinn Fein, DUP and Plaid Cymru received approximately half of this, but got 23 seats. In 2015 this was even further exaggerated, with the Conservatives managing to achieve a surprise majority, increasing their vote share by less than one percentage point while their number of seats increased by 24, largely benefiting from the collapse of the LibDem vote. At the same time, Labour managed to lose 26 seats despite their vote share increasing by 1.5 points. It was with the smaller, medium sized parties that the unfairness of this system is most apparent. The SNP soared in support to become the third party in the House of Commons with 56 seats, 95% of the Scottish seats. However, they only won 50% of the Scottish vote, and they only won 4.7% of the national vote, but secured 8.6% of seats. The LibDems got one million more votes than the SNP, and 7.9% of the vote, but only 8 MPs (1.2%). The comparison between the vote share and the number of seats won by UKIP is even more shocking. 3.8 million votes, or 12.7% of the vote, but only one MP, or 0.2% of the total. This means that almost 4 million UKIP voters are represented by only one MP, or in many ways, by no one at all. These are lost votes. It is very much the same situation for the Greens who won 3.8% of the vote, but won the same number of MPs as UKIP, one, and less than the UUP, SDLP, DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru, who won a combined 2.5% of the vote, and secured 20 seats between them, each having more MPs than either UKIP or the Greens. As more and more people vote for parties other than the Conservatives and Labour, the less the make up of parliament reflects the democratic will of the public and views and desires of the UK, and so the less representative and democratic it becomes.

Not only has the distribution of seats been increasingly disproportionate, but the idea of the winning party having a democratic mandate is becoming much less convincing than ever before. 2015 also saw the Conservatives sweep aside their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, to claim a slim majority of the seats with 36.9% of the vote, the same share of the vote that Labour lost the 1979 general election with. Along with the Labour majority in 2005 with 35.3%, this disproportionately low share of the vote leading to a majority has been almost completely unprecedented in British politics. Before 2005, the last time any party won a majority with under 40% of the vote was when Labour won the 1974 (Oct) election with 39.2% of the vote and a majority of one seat. Before then it was in 1922 when the Conservatives won 38.5% of the vote. The Conservatives have not achieved more than 40% of the vote since 1992, and Labour has only achieved as much twice since 1970, in 1997 and 2001. No party has won a majority of votes since 1931, and although the Coalition government of 2010-2015 had a combined 59%, almost no one was casting their vote in the expectation that there would be a coalition government. The vote share of the main two parties has been in general decline for decades, and with it the disproportionality of our electoral system has increased.

Proportional representation is by no means alien to the United Kingdom. The Assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and London, and the London Mayoral elections, all use semi-proportional hybrid electoral systems, resulting in a distribution of seats much more in line with the way people have voted, or in the case of the London Mayoral election it allows for people to give their first and second preference, also known as transfers. In local elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, the proportional representation system of Single Transferable Vote is used to produce a distribution of seats even more in line with the distribution of the vote than First Past The Post (Westminster), Supplementary Vote (London Mayoral) or the Additional Member System (Assemblies). In Northern Ireland this is largely to give adequate representation to the various sectarian groupings, however, it is the same system used in elections in the Republic of Ireland south of the border. This means that already much of the British electorate is familiar with some form of proportional representation. In actual fact, anyone who votes in the European Elections will already be familiar with proportional representation. The 1999 European election is one of the best examples in the UK of the benefit of proportional representation. This was the first time it was used in such elections, and whereas in 1989 the Greens came in third, winning over 2 million votes and 15% of the vote, they won no seats whatsoever, as did the LibDems with 6.2% of the vote. Almost all of the seats were won by Labour and the Conservatives, and only one was secured by the SNP, with 2.6% of the vote. Partly as a result of increases in the vote share of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP, as well as a significant change in the voting system to proportional representation, these three parties all won seats in the European Parliament for the first time. Plaid won 2 seats (2.4%) with 1.9% of the vote, UKIP won 3 (3.6%) with 7%, the Greens won 2 with 6.3% and the LibDems won an additional 8 seats to give them a total of 10 (12%) with 13% of the vote. The change in the voting system meant that for the first time ever, minor British parties were able to win representation in the European Parliament, resulting in a much healthier democracy.

What we have now is an electoral system designed for two party politics, that, even in the golden age of British two party politics resulted in hugely distorted and unrepresentative parliaments. We no longer have two party, or three party politics. We have arguably got 5 major political forces, and a number of small but significant political parties and campaign groups, but this simply isn’t reflected in the make-up of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.


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