Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation

In December 2019, the country once again went to the polls as Boris Johnson sought to gain a Conservative majority in order to deliver his plans for Brexit. His campaign left him with an 80-seat majority and the backing he needed to take the UK out of the EU in January 2020.

Whilst leading the polls with a 43.6% overall vote share, it is clear however, that the majority of the voting public are left with their views not represented in government (56.4%). Of course, this only takes into account the overall vote share.

We know that in 285 constituencies, a non-Conservative MP was elected. This provides those with non-Conservative views the opportunity to have representation in parliament. However, representation in parliament and representation in government are two very different things, particularly when the incumbent government have a significant majority. When you look at representation at a constituency level, 45.3% of voters did not vote for their current MP.

Why doesn’t First Past the Post work anymore?

First Past the Post enforces a two-party system. This is because with the requirement of a 50% majority to enter government, the only way to be sure that party one won’t take power, is to vote for party two. Votes for party three, four, five etc. are believed to be wasted votes as they don’t have a chance of having an outright majority.

Because of this enforced two-party system, this leads some people towards feeling that they need to vote tactically in order to prevent a specific candidate from winning in their constituency, rather than voting for their preferred candidate, who would be perceived as having no chance of winning in their constituency. A similar feeling is seen by some who feel they must vote tactically based on national interest, to prevent a specific party from taking office in government.

The average trend from 1945 to 2019 is that the percentage of national vote share held by the two largest parties has been decreasing as a wider variety of parties and candidates have stood for office, representing a wider variety of views.

Alongside this, the number of parties that have achieved over 1% of the national vote share has doubled since the 1950s, from 3 to 6. This, when coupled with a trend that sees a rise in the number of parties that have achieved more than 20,000 national votes, highlights that the electorate sees more on offer than just the two largest parties that contest the two-party system.

Earlier, we also identified that 45.3% of voters did not vote for their current MP. Given that you are only allowed to contact your local constituency MP, this creates a distinct disadvantage for anybody whose local MP’s views are vastly different to their own.

Alternative Vote (AV)

In 2011, the Liberal Democrats, as part of the coalition government, led a referendum on the alternative vote, which is a form of instant-runoff voting (IRV). AV returns one MP per constituency, as the current system does, but asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. To win each seat, a candidate must achieve at least 50% of the vote share. If no single candidate can achieve this in the first round, the lowest candidate is removed from the vote and the second preference votes are added to the remaining candidates. This is repeated until one candidate has over 50% of the vote.

This system allows for the preferential views of those who did not select the candidate who has the highest vote share in the first round to be taken into account. Thus, increasing the amount of representation in parliament. However, because AV still only elects one MP per constituency, there will still be voters left that have an MP that they did not show a preference for. Although, a lower number than with the First Past the Post system.

Party List Proportional Representation (List PR)

A closed list version of List PR was the system used in the UK for electing MEPs until the UK left the EU in 2019. List PR can either be closed list, meaning that voters will rank parties in order of preference, or open list, meaning that voters will rank individual candidates in order of preference.

In this scenario, individual constituencies are grouped together to make larger constituency areas. Each area would be represented by a number of elected MPs, proportionally representative of the share of the votes within that area.

This would lead to it being even less likely that voters would be left without a single MP that would be one of their preferences, as multiple MPs will represent the area. However, with MPs being responsible for large areas, comes a reduction in representation, as their time and efforts are split across more constituents, and each MP within that area would have differing workloads based on the preferences of who constituents would wish to contact.

Single Transferrable Vote (STV)

The Single Transferrable Vote produces multiple winners, rather than a single winner. Therefore, multiple constituencies are joined together to produce constituencies that would return a small handful of MPs to represent that area. This maintains proportionality whilst keeping a closer constituency link than other systems.

Voters state their order of preferences for candidates. However, their vote can be transferred based on the outcome of the initial voting. If the candidate that they expressed as their first preference has no chance of being elected, or they already have enough votes their vote will be transferred to their second preference and so on.

Analysis of 2019 General Election with other electoral systems

Over at the Electoral Reform Society, they have been doing a lot of top work in looking at how changes to the voting system used in general elections would work in practice. They have taken the 2019 election results and used their models to give predicted outcomes if the alternative models were used in the 2019 general election.

CON LAB LIB SNP GRN BRX OTH
FPTP 365 203 11 48 1 0 22
List PR 288 216 70 28 12 11 25
STV 312 221 59 30 2 3 23
General Election 2019 Results

Both alternative systems drastically reduce the number of SNP seats. This makes it proportionally fairer in comparison to their percentage vote share, which was 3.9% in 2019. The other major difference in the alternative models is better proportional representation for the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and the Brexit Party.

As you can see, the changes to the two largest parties are fairly negligible. However, with both List PR and STV, it is enough to ensure that no single party has an overall majority. In this scenario, we would likely require a coalition government or a minority government that relies on cross-party support. Either way, it requires parties to work together in order to ensure proper governance.

Analysis of 2010 General Election with other electoral systems

The 2010 general election is probably the best election to show how drastically the different voting systems can affect the results. The Liberal Democrats won 23% of the national vote share, yet only won 8.8% of seats. This is compared to both the Conservatives and Labour who won a higher percentage of seats than national vote share.

CON LAB LIB SNP GRN UKIP OTH
FPTP 306 258 57 6 1 0 22
AV 282 264 74 6 1 0 23
List PR 240 193 154 11 6 20 26
STV 254 195 166 13 1 0 21
General Election 2010 Results

As you can see, under both List PR and STV, the Liberal Democrats get a seat figure that matches their national vote share. List PR also awards 20 seats to UKIP, who would fail to get any seats in the other systems shown. They achieved 3.1% of the national vote share in 2010.

So, where do we go from here?

It is my view that we need electoral reform for a number of reasons. The most important is to ensure that voters are properly represented, both in parliament and in government. This would ensure that we have a truly democratic system that works for as many people as possible.

The second reason is to encourage cross-party collaboration in the national interest. If a single party achieves over 50% of the seats under a system that encourages proportional representation, they have likely achieved over 50% of the national vote share. In this case, they fully deserve to lead their programme in government. However, without a majority of seats, they will need to rely on support from across the house to pass new legislation.

I firmly believe that moving forwards, we should be moving away from party politics, in particular those that enforce party whips on members. MPs should be left to vote based on their knowledge and judgment, whilst considering the constituents that they serve. This would further increase representation of constituents within parliament and government, which has to be the overall aim.

I also believe that if we were to adopt an electoral system that emphasises proportional representation, more people would move from voting for the two largest parties and move towards ‘smaller’ parties. I believe this, largely because I expect a number of voters will vote tactically, particularly where they live in a ‘safe seat’. The introduction of proportional representation would encourage them to vote based on their preferred candidate, rather than vote based on their least-preferred.

For more information on the modelling used in this piece, please visit the Electoral Reform Society website at www.electoral-reform.org.uk

Source: The 2019 General Election

Source: 2010 UK General Election

Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation
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