Whilst over the past few hundred years, society and democracy have developed and changed beyond recognition, our voting system has failed to keep pace. Indeed, for decades, our system of First Past The Post has resulted in disproportionate election outcomes. Yet, without a hint of irony, the government has announced the first week of July will be hailed ‘National Democracy Week’. Despite being billed a celebration of British democracy, this week-long event comes as our government still refuses to even consider, let alone support a more proportional electoral system.
First Past The Post: The issues
Whilst today, all adults are allowed to vote- thanks to First Past the Post (FPTP)- most of the population do not have a vote that truly counts or is an influence in the composition of Parliament. Most recently, in the 2017 general election, 68% of the votes cast had no impact on the result, either going to losing candidates or simply bolstering ‘safe seats’.
First Past the Post ultimately fails to establish a reliable and fair link between a proportion of votes won by parties and the seats gained. This occurs because the system is concerned mainly with the election of individual political candidates rather than the representation of political parties as a whole. In recent decades, our electoral system has often resulted in ‘systematic biases’. Indeed, the disproportionality of FPTP is not random. Certain parties (namely the Conservatives and Labour Party) achieve well in elections, while other small parties frequently suffer.
Often, large parties benefit at the complete expense of smaller parties and therefore political diversity is suppressed. The ‘winner takes all’ effect means that 100 percent of representation is gained in each constituency by a single candidate, and therefore a single party. Winning candidates tend to come from large parties, as these are the parties whose candidates are most likely to be ‘first past the post’ in the sense of winning plurality support. With First Past the Post, Parliament fails to reflect the way citizens vote. It denies millions of people representation of their choosing. In the 2017 general election, for example, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP received 11% of votes between them, yet they shared just 2% of seats. The 2015 General Election was even worse. The same three parties received almost a quarter of all the votes cast, yet these parties shared just 1.5% of seats.
Consequently, voters are discouraged from supporting small parties because they know that they are unlikely to win seats, and even more unlikely to win the overall elections. This is the problem of so-called ‘wasted votes’. A proportion of voters are therefore inclined to vote for large parties on the ground that they are the ‘least bad’ of the two because rather they are their first preference party. Yet, it isn’t just votes for losing candidates that go to waste. Votes for winning candidates above and beyond what was needed to win a particular constituency, count for nothing. A seat won by, say, a 40,000 vote majority has the same outcome as a seat won by a single vote: both elect just a single MP.
However, MakeVotesMatter hopes to change this. That is why on 30th June, the pressure group will be launching ‘Demand Democracy Day’, a day of national campaigning. In a hope to advertise the benefits of Proportional Representation (PR), members from the group will be hitting the streets to talk to the public, test the government’s “celebration”, sign people up to the group’s petition and demand that political figures support fairer votes.
Proportional Representation: The way forward?
Proportional Representation allows politicians the possibility of working together, co-operating and coming to a consensus in the long-term interests of the country. It makes policy-making by consensus possible, enabling lasting decisions to be made on crucial issues.
Significantly, most democracies use some form of PR for their general elections. There are a variety of different forms- each with their own features. Crucially, no proportional system is as flawed as First Past the Post. What’s more, many systems of PR-which boast strong constituency links, enhanced voter choice and greater accountability-are undoubtedly better.
MakeVotesMatter does not campaign for a preferred voting system. Instead, it aims to build greater consensus between political parties and organisations about the requirements of suitable proportional systems. Even so, there are a number of tried-and-tested forms of Proportional Representation which would be more than appropriate for use in general elections.
The UK could, for example, greatly benefit from the Additional Member System. Already used to elect the Scottish Parliament and for general elections in Germany, half the number of MPs are elected to single-member constituencies. The other half would be elected to represent ‘multi-member’ constituencies. This is highly beneficial. In Scotland, such a system means that each voter not only has one Member of the Scottish Parliament accountable to the constituency but seven MSPs responsible for their region. Here, there are greater opportunities to seek true representation.