IS BRITAIN VOTING PROPERLY?
By Alex Beard
The electoral system of this country determines how our elections work and ultimately, the nature and tone of decision making; changing it – through what is known as ‘Electoral Reform’ (ER) – could change Britain’s political landscape profoundly and lead to a more diverse, compromise driven society. Opponents, meanwhile, suggest that such a change would lead to instability and uncertainty.
A change of the UK’s electoral system to make it more representative of how the voting population actually believes the country should be governed would not only likely change the party political landscape and the way people vote, it would result in a change of political culture for the country – one which would favour compromise and sustainable decision-making and would, contrary to what many opposed to the idea say, not have to mean the end of the constituency based system which populates parliament with national decision makers who also act as local representatives.
Members of Parliament, of which there are currently 650, sit in the House of Commons (HOC) where they debate and vote for or against legislation and decisions on behalf of the British public, who elect them during General Elections. Most MPs belong to a political party, and if their party wins over half of the seats in the HOC in an election, they have enough votes to pass legislation by themselves and are therefore able to form the country’s government, where the party leader becomes Prime Minister – if no party wins a majority, parties can form alliances known as coalitions, where they govern and vote together, or the largest party can form a minority government.
Rather than being a single nationwide election where the proportion of the votes a party gets correlates directly to the number of seats they get – known in electoral terms as Proportional Representation (PR) – the UK is divided up into small areas known as constituencies which have their own elections where the person with the most votes wins the constituency ( or ‘seat’ in the HOC) for their party.
This is inherently undemocratic, as it means that rather than needing to win the majority of votes to form a government and take control of the country, a party only needs to win the plurality of votes in the majority of constituencies. As the elected MP for a constituency rarely wins over 50% of the vote, therefore, so-called majority governments have rarely won the majority of public support. In 2015, for example, despite having won only 37% of the vote, the Conservatives won 51% of the seats, giving them the opportunity to form a government with which they ultimately had 100% of the power. Introducing an electoral system involving proportional representation would ensure that parties could only form governments if they had the majority of the country’s votes, or would have to seek to form a coalition, meaning the government would actually represent the people.
This break from a system where there can be only one winner in each constituency and ultimately one overall would lead to more parties being represented. Whereas in other countries with more representative systems have a diverse range of parties represented in their national legislatures, 3rd parties in the UK are held back by the constituency system. Despite getting 23% of the vote at the 2010 General Election, for example, the Liberal Democrats got just 9% of the seats. Altering this would allow for more people to vote for a wider range of parties as they don’t feel they have to choose between two polarised options, and would ensure that a wider range of opinions was heard in the House of Commons and ultimately in government.
It would also allow warring factions within the two main parties to break away from each other – the Conservatives have been seemingly forever divided on the issue of the European Union - it can be argued that little links more liberal Tory figures such as David Cameron to hard-line conservatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg other than a general identity of being ‘on the political right’ and an electoral system that allowed for more political diversity would put an end to stagnating governments and allow separate parties to focus on what they have in common in order to form political alliances.
The biggest disadvantage of this, of course, would be the ability of far-right forces to enter parliament for the first time; a PR based system could allow such a conservative nationalist party to gain a significant number of votes at an election posing as a protest vote for struggling people, only to occupy the Commons as a neo-fascist voice ready to scapegoat minority groups without a substantial manifesto or economic policy and with which no moderate party could form a coalition – the AfD in Germany or the PVV in the Netherlands are textbook examples of this.
As its critics are never hesitant to point out, electoral reform would almost certainly lead to a loss of traditional British minority governments, which give the political landscape a certain amount of stability. Instead, parties would need to work together (shock horror!) to form coalitions, such as between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, where all the parties (usually two or three) negotiate a joint government programme and appoint ministers to the cabinet, or form minority governments, Britain’s current one being just one example, which are parties who rule without a working majority but are usually supported by one or more other groups, like the DUP, who agree to vote with them on key issues.
The benefits of coalitions are often overlooked – they mean that more people are represented in government and compromise is reached on some of the major decisions the government has to make – and would be easier in a scenario where there were more parties: a coalition of the Labour Party and a strengthened Green Party or Liberal Democrats would make this more easily possible.
On the other hand, an end to the supposed electoral security of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) could result in long periods of negotiations and talks after an election which would leave the country effectively ungoverned, leading to instability and uncertainty that is not only economically damaging, but also leaves a period of time when government is not acting in the interests of the people and finding solutions to social problems. Recently, Spain went months without a government thanks to electoral deadlock resulting from strengthened third parties in an election after which new elections were called before a decision was finally reached.
In the past, steps have been made towards getting rid of FPTP in favour of one of a plethora of other existing systems such as MMP based on Proportional Representation or those that introduce more rounds of voting or more options on the ballot paper and it featured in 2010 on both the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos.
Such was the push only a few years ago that a nationwide referendum was held on whether to introduce a system known as ‘Alternative Vote’ but this was poorly explained, having a pathetic turnout of just 42% and would not have introduced the changes that most ER campaigners were pushing for – it was, ironically, a compromise on the issue resulting from the 2010 coalition talks.
The fact remains, however, that few politicians in power are willing to push through changes to a system that allowed them to reach that position in the first place and it is this reason above all that makes an overhaul of British politics seem unlikely. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was voted in through a FPTP system on a manifesto that included ER, is yet to make the changes he pledged to.
The case for ER seems compelling and could move the UK away from its reactionary political system, for better or for worse, but brings with it its own problems and a failure to interest the public combined with an apparent inability to transcend the politics of power make change in the near future seem like an unlikely prospect.