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Westminster Wednesday: Electoral Reform

In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.

Electoral systems in use

Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.

Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.

Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.

So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?

Electoral reform in the UK

One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.

But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.

At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.

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