Electoral reform is a dry subject, much given to being discussed with reference to endless charts and figures. I shall attempt to steer away from this path and discuss why we need change without relying on a thousand appendices. Since time immemorial (well, since 1707) general elections in the United Kingdom have been contested under the First Past The Post system, where whoever gets the most votes in a defined constituency wins the right to represent that constituency in parliament. This sounds like a pretty straightforward popularity contest, but in effect it results in lopsided, unfair and exclusive politics. Here is why…
1. It’s Unfair & Silences Minority Views
We’re all used to the election night graphics and newspaper maps which display the country split into shades of red, blue, yellow, gold, green and other shades to denote which party has won each area but such stark images only tell part of the story.
As the ‘winner’ in each seat can do so with anything between 25% (in a tight multiply contested seat) and 50% of the vote what about the votes of the remaining 75-50%? In theory, an MP represents all if his constituents, but in practice with a party system in play and most constituents voting for the party, rather than the individual (except in the case if independent candidates, of which only one was returned in 2010) do we really expect the elected representative to go against their party line at the urging of the majority of constituents who DIDN”T VOTE FOR THEM?
So the result is that only a minority of constituents in any given area are represented in parliament. That’s not right.
The need to produce a majority in any one area usually serves to silence a significant proportion of the population, perhaps with broad ranging support but never more than 10-20% in a given area.
For example, in the 2010 election if the 650 seats in the House of Commons had been allocated to parties by the proportion of the vote they earned*, the two main parties (Conservative and Labour) would have lost around 65 seats each compared to hwo they performed under first past the post, while parties who tend to come a game second to them in many places, like the Liberal Democrats and SNP would have gained seats and the Greens would have increased their representation fivefold. Even more telling is that broad ranging support across England should have returned representation for UKIP (20) the BNP (12) and English Democrats (1).
Now, I’m not especially overjoyed at the prospect of 30 odd expressly racist far right MPs in parliament but surely if we live in a democracy and people are voting for these parties in numbers, then they should be represented?
This is exacerbated by the tendency of people to realize that their preferred party probably won’t win their seat under FPTP and as such they vote tactically for the party which might win that is least offensive to them – for example, supporters of more left wing parties might vote SNP, Liberal Democrat or Labour to try and foil a Conservative challenge in a seat and vice versa, UKIP voters might vote Conservative to foil a Labour or Liberal Democrat challenge.
Therefore, it is likely that under a fairer (proportional representation) system, the share of the vote for ‘fringe’ parties would increase, meaning they would earn even more seats than indicated by analyzing elections conducted under FPTP.
This combination of seats awarded not actually reflecting the votes cast and the systemic influence which distorts HOW those votes are cast leads to the exclusion or diminishment of parties and viewpoints with considerable national support.
2. It Creates Conflict Instead of Co-Operation and Dispute Instead of Debate
By favouring the two (or sometimes three) biggest parties, FPTP compels these parties into a form of homogeneity, as none want to alienate the ‘middle ground’ (or middle classes) by seeming too extreme in any one area.
This results in the landscape of British politics which we have become used to, with main parties possessing almost identical policies cat-calling each other across the house and relying on outdated, class/tribal loyalties and outright lies and propaganda to differentiate their voter base.
Lesser parties are relegated to the back benches of the opposition side of the chamber and any idea they present which threatens the cozy status quo of Labour and Conservative is ridiculed, shouted down and shooed away by the disproportionally large numbers of ‘big two’ MPs.
Parliament is supposed to be a place where policy is debated and a form of consensus is achieved by those fairly elected to govern the nation on behalf of the people, but the ability of one or other main party to usually secure a parliamentary majority (or at worst, a dominant position in a coalition) despite only receiving 30-40% of the vote nationally, results in a parliament firmly split between Government and Opposition, where the Government can in theory force through any policy they want and all the Opposition can do (if they are even minded to, given the likeness between Conservative and Labour policy since the mid 90s) is fume and call names, unless there is a serious breach of the party whip (or coalition agreement) on the government side.
Thus, what should be reasoned debate in parliament becomes a repeated case of character assassination as ministers ridicule one another, accuse each other’s parties of this or that iniquity and rarely actually get to the meat of a policy or anything approaching civilized discourse.
Is this how the business of governing our country should be conducted?
A parliament where more views are represented and no one party (or indeed a coalition of two) can claim a majority would by necessity require compromise, adult debate and consensus, rather than the binary ‘you vs. us’ atmosphere fostered in the Commons and emphasised by the layout of the chamber.
3. It Stifles Change
By favouring the two main parties, FPTP makes change almost impossible. Every election is essentially a question of whether the Conservatives or Labour will win and by how much and the contest in individual seats is usually a three horse race at best, with many seats considered such a sure thing for one party or another that folks who might want to vote for anyone else might as well stay at home.. Many do.
All of these points are made without considering the unequal size of constituencies, the potential for gerrymandering of their boundaries to benefit one party or another and the tendency of FPTP to reward locally significant parties with no national following with representation ahead of those with considerable, but more distributed national support. (For example, UKIP got half a million more votes than the SNP in 2010 but was left without a single seat while the SNP had six…)
The case FOR First Past the Post largely rests on the idea that it produces a strong government and that the constituency system means that every voter is represented by a specific individual no matter how (or indeed, if) they voted.
I believe these arguments to be spurious as a ‘strong’ government which is against the will of the people is not democracy and an MP is never going to vote against his party on behalf of the appeals of some constituents (for example, my MP is Anas Sarwar and he certainly doesn’t represent my wishes regarding the Bedroom Tax or further devolution for Scotland.)
In my view progressive reform of the way we vote and how those votes or allocated into parliamentary representation in the UK would revitalize our democracy, increase voter turnout and engagement, creating a more vibrant, varied and collaborative parliament, breaking the power of the established parties and being a bane to careerists and those who seek to limit political involvement of the public to maintain their cozy power base and corporate policies.