Is electoral reform what Britain needs to bring the nation together and overcome current divisions?

Although first past the post (FPTP) is old, traditional and defines how our Parliamentary system works, it is no longer fit for purpose. FPTP, also known as Single Member Plurality, is notorious for its disproportionality. Although, arguably, it does deliver good geographical representation to certain regions, as a whole most people do not feel represented in Westminster. Although true that a move away from FPTP would benefit smaller parties rather than larger ones, electoral reform could truly be the only way to get the Tories out of power.

All alternative electoral systems are more likely to lead to coalitions. This is often a criticism of proportional systems. However, are coalitions always a bad thing? The short answer is no. Coalitions tend to lead to compromise and policy that is more widely supported, rather than policy that is only supported by one party. Not only is this a good way of actually getting policy through and delivering the change that this country needs, but would be change that is in line with that which the electorate wants, as more parties will have a say on it. Moreover, coalition isn’t synonymous with instability. Looking at mainland Europe, yes some coalitions don’t last long, but many do. This is seen in places like Germany and the Netherlands where they mostly have stable governments. Furthermore, think what you may of our coalition government of 2010-2015, but it shocked all the political pundits by lasting the full five-year term; and that is in a system that is not made or prepared for anything like a coalition government, many senior figures from that government will tell you how unprepared the civil service was for a coalition government. Lastly, with regards to coalitions, they would get the Tories out of power. The centre to the left of British politics is in the majority. For example, according to Channel 4’s figures, if the 2017 election was done under an Additional Member System (we will look into the alternative systems shortly), then a centre to left coalition (of Labour, Greens, Plaid, SNP and the Lib Dems) would have a majority of seven, which is still a majority higher than May’s non-existent one. A coalition of this kind, albeit broad, would be more likely to address the grievances of such a divided and fractured nation. Channel 4’s predictions for STV has Labour on the most seats out of any electoral system (all alternative systems having Labour on more seats than they are on under STV). According to these numbers, a coalition of just Labour and the SNP would be enough to clench a majority.

Now that we have established how coalition governments are neither innately unstable nor always of poor quality, we can look into what alternative systems are best for the UK and what the best way of changing systems would be. We will look briefly at four different systems: Alternative vote (AV), Single Transferable Vote (STV), Additional Member Systems (AMS) and regional party list.

AV (also known as Instant Runoff Voting) is what is known as a majoritarian system; it ensures that every MP that is voted in to office has at least half of their constituents’ approval. In order to ensure this, the election process is as follows: the country is split into (possibly the same as we have now) small constituencies. Each constituency is to be represented by one MP. On election day, constituents go to the voting booth and receive a ballot paper that looks almost identical to one they would get today. However, instead of putting a cross in the box next to their favourite candidate, they number their preferences, with “1” being for their favourite, then the rest in descending order of preference. Now for the count. If a certain candidate has over 50% of first preference votes, then they become the MP and the race is over. If not, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and all of those ballots’ second preferences are transferred over to the other candidates. If no one is still on 50% of the vote, the process of elimination continues until someone does have that 50%. The benefits of this system are that: it keeps the intimate constituency link, it ensures that each MP is approved by a majority of the constituency and it is more likely, than proportional systems, to lead majority governments. The drawbacks are that MPs can be called the “wrong winner” if they won off of second and third preference votes, majoritarian systems such as this also do nothing to address disproportionality of results and lastly it does not eliminate tactical voting, as proportional systems do. Where AV is used: Ireland (presidential elections), Australia (for the House of Representatives) and Papua New Guinea for (their National Parliament). Overall verdict: better than FPTP but doesn’t radically change the system by much.

STV is not a directly proportional system, however its outcomes tend to be quite proportional. STV works as follows: the country would be split into fewer, but larger constituencies. Each constituency would have multiple MPs. On election day, the voter would walk into the voting booth and vote in an almost identical way as to how they would under AV: numbering their preferences. Parties can stand multiple candidates of course, but sometimes more candidates could lead to a split of their vote. In order to get elected to be an MP for that constituency, each candidate would need to receive a certain amount of votes to reach a quota. If the quota is not reached, then candidates are eliminated until it is. After counting, each constituency will have 3-8 MPs elected. This is a large change from FPTP, as it means we would have multi member constituencies. Although this may seem daunting and radical, in truth it isn’t. Multi member constituencies are argued to reduce the constituency link as they have to be part of a larger constituency. However, it is clear that in many ways, a multi member constituency can actually enhance the constituency link. This is because constituents have more diverse MPs that they can approach. This could be diversity of race, religion or political party. For example, if a Labour voter felt more comfortable talking to a Labour MP, then the chances are that under STV, one of their MPs would be Labour. The same applies if a woman would rather talk to a female MP or a minority group would want to talk to an MP that is a member of that same minority group. The benefits of this system are that: it is more proportional (the general rule being, that the more MPs per constituency, the more proportional the overall result is), it keeps (and in some ways enhances) the constituency link and MPs are elected with a mandate due to having to reach the quota. The downsides of this system are that: larger constituencies could mean a disconnect between voters and MPs, due to the quota it is hard for the general public to be able to work out how MPs are elected (although voting itself remains simple) and lastly, STV has never been implemented before on a scale as large as the UK. STV is used in Ireland (for the Dáil Éireann), Australia (for the Senate) and Malta (for their House of Representatives). Overall verdict: a good system for the UK, as it retains the constituency link for all MPs, which is at the heart of British democracy, although in some ways this link may be eroded due to larger constituencies, it is also enhanced for the reasons listed above.

Unlike STV, AMS is designed to be a proportional system. However, it is operated in a way that ensures that there is a degree of constituency link between MPs and the electorate. The system would operate as follows: the country keeps its current system of small, single member constituencies (which we will continue to refer to as “constituencies”). However, new constituencies are also created that run alongside these small FPTP constituencies. These new, larger, constituencies would be called (and will be consequently referred to as) regionsand are likely to be ones such as London, Yorkshire, Scotland, East Midlands etc. So far (in this system) we have two, parallel, types of voting districts: constituencies and regions. Voting works as follows: the voter goes into the voting booth and hastwo votes. One vote is operated the same as FPTP, wherein they put a cross in a box next to the name of their favourite candidate for their constituency. On the other side of the ballot paper the voter does the same, but this time votes for a party not a person- this vote is for the region. The votes are then counted, and the UK would return to Parliament two different types of MPs. Some would be elected by their constituency whereas some would be members elected byregion. The count works like this: first the larger, regions are counted up and MPs are given to each party proportionally based off of this count- for example let’s say Labour get 300 seats: that is the final number of seats Labour gets. So we have established that Labour has 300 seats. Now how do we choose which MPs Labour sends to the Commons? Well firstly, we see which Labour MPs also won in their constituencies. If this number is 262 (their 2017 election results), then this means that Labour would have 38 seats still to fill. This is where the regional votes come in and top-up Labour’s seats so that their total is 300. What are the benefits of this system? It is proportional, it keeps a strong, local constituency link and allows people to split their vote in order to deal with conflicting local and national interests. What are the weaknesses of this system? Many people don’t and won’t understand how it works (even though the process of voting itself is very simple) and it would lead to two tiers of MPs, some could be seen as more important than others. AMS is used in: Germany (for the Bundestag), Scotland and Wales (for their devolved parliament and assembly respectively) and New Zealand (for their House of Representatives). Overall verdict: a very effective electoral system that has been used on a large scale, however it is probably more complex than the other alternatives, and two tiers of MPs can sometimes cause issues in parliaments. Moreover, only half of the MPs would be directly accountable to local communities which arguably makes the constituency link weaker than the likes of FPTP, AV and STV wherein the MPs are elected directly by their local communities.

The final system to be discussed is regional party list. Regional party list is the closest system to direct proportional representation. This is because it practically disregards a local constituency link as a fundamental part of an electoral system, as local and federal governments could be seen as fulfilling a sufficient local role while the national elections can stay focussed on national issues. There are many variants of regional party list, but the overall premise is the same: the country is split into fewer and larger constituencies, even fewer and larger than STV, with many more MPs- some countries, such as Israel and the Netherlands, only have just one large constituency with over a hundred MPs. Voters go to the voting booth and vote for a party. Each party has their own ballot paper which has a long list of their candidates on it. This list of candidates is in order of who that party wants to get elected for that region. The voter chooses a party ballot paper and puts it into the ballot box. This is the voting done. The calculation of votes to seats is fairly technical and there are many methods of doing it. However, the overall results are highly proportional, with votes almost equalling exactly into seats. The strengths of this system are: it is highly proportional, it can lead to higher voter turnout and it can lead to more powers to local councils and regional governments as the national government can focus purely on national issues. The downsides are that it erases the constituency link between MPs and their constituents and it could lead to higher representation of extremes (although this can be eliminated by having a threshold to eliminate smaller parties from achieving representation). This system is used in the UK for European Parliament elections, it is used in Austria for elections to the Nationalrat and is used in the Nordic countries: Finland (to the Eduskunta), Norway (to the Storting), Sweden (to the Riksdag) and Denmark (to the Folketinget). The system can vary from country to country, with some having what is called an “open” party list wherein voters have more of a say over the specific candidates that each party puts forward, or they can have “closed” party lists where voters have no say over the candidates and just vote for the party. The latter is used in Poland (Sejm elections), Portugal (to the Assembly of the Republic) and Israel (for the Knesset) arguably leading to their lower approval ratings of politicians and faith in their democratic systems. Overall verdict: good for proportionality and usually leads to higher turnout, however, if regional party list was to be used in the UK, it would have to be an open party list so that we can hold politicians directly to account. It would also have to come hand-in-hand with a renewal of how we do local government, possibly with a federalisation of the UK.

So there are the other realistic alternative voting systems that the UK could adopt. Some are more popular than others and some are just innately better than others. But what is the best way of bringing about a new electoral system that we all approve of? Probably by doing the same as New Zealand in 1992. They used a two-tier referendum system. First the people were asked if they would like to keep the current system or change it (they voted 84.72% in favour of changing it). They were then asked if they were to change the system, which would they change it to. They had to choose between four different systems and chose, by 64.95%, a form of AMS. First they voted for departure, then they voted for the destination. This would be a good way of choosing a new electoral system in the UK, and once we change our electoral system we could change the political system forever, making Britain fairer and politicians more accountable, and if booting the Tories out of power is more likely as a result of this, then I am not ashamed to say that electoral reform is a good step forward for the UK


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