The Case for Electoral Reform – Stronger Than Ever

The 2015 general election was a triumph for the Conservatives. Before the exit polls on 7th May no one foresaw a Tory majority. So how did it happen?

In the weeks since the election there has been much speculation: Did Ed Miliband fail as a leader? Did Tory spending buy the vote? Should UKIP and the LibDems wind up their parties and leave British politics for good?

It’s none of these. It’s simply the failure of our electoral system to deliver democracy. With 36% of those who turned out voting for the Tories they cannot be said to have a mandate to form a majority government. More people nationally voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats than for the Conservatives.

Our “winner takes it all” system means our government has been formed by a party who has a mandate from only 25% of the electorate. It’s not just the Conservatives who have done well from the system. It’s also the Scottish National Party and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland. In fact the DUP have done alarmingly well by getting 8 MPs with only 190,000 votes. They have the same number of representatives in the House of Commons as the Liberal Democrats who had over 12 times as many votes.

UKIP have been the biggest losers of all – by a long shot. The Liberal Democrats have also done extremely badly by this system and the Greens. With just 1.5 million votes the SNP have 56 MPs. By comparison, UKIP with nearly 4 million have one.

So now finally there is something on which the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can agree. Both parties would stand to gain from moving to a different and more proportional voting system. But of course those parties in power are those who have the most to lose by changing the system. The existing system is after all the one that has delivered the power to them.

The First Past the Post system works well for a two-party system. If there are two candidates the one who gets the most votes wins. Simples. This does however not translate into a modern, 21st century multi-party European democracy which is what the UK has become. As an electorate we’re no longer given the 20th century choice of a tug of war between landowners and labourers. It’s far more sophisticated and nuanced than that. Our electoral system hasn’t caught up with the times.

The out-dated electoral system encourages tactical voting. How many times do we not hear people saying that they belong to party A, but will vote for party B instead because they want to keep party C out? We are encouraged to vote as if we were in a two-party system because in many constituencies only a vote for one of the two political giants (Conservatives and Labour) can secure enough votes to get one of those two enough votes to keep out the other. Dividing the left between the Greens, the SNP and Labour for example would in many places deliver a more votes for the Conservatives than for the other parties – even if more people combined voted for those other parties. Conversely, dividing the right between the Conservatives and UKIP could render a win for Labour.

It is common for people to think that there is no point voting. Their vote doesn’t count. This is of course absolutely true in many seats. If there is a safe winner then voting for any other party is pointless. They will not get in.

A fairer voting system could encourage more people to vote because the link between your vote and the resulting government would be more clear and allow people to vote for the party they believe in rather than for you hate because they’re the only ones who can “keep out” the party you despise.

There are enough people who voted UKIP, Green or Liberal Democrat to warrant far more representation than these parties have. Half the voters in Scotland did not vote for the SNP. They do not want independence, yet only three Scottish MPs out of 59 are unionists, compared to nearly half the population who voted for unionist parties.

Could the time be ripe for electoral reform?

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Published by Millicent Scott

Millicent is The Democratic Society's Director of Operations. She has spent over a decade working on increasing citizens’ engagement with policy making and bringing people into democratic processes. Before joining DemSoc in 2015 she had worked for the Scottish Government, Scottish Civic Forum, European Parliament, the Association for Citizenship Teaching (England) and the Financial Times. In 2015 she also stood for the UK Parliament herself. “I want to change the way politics is done. I want to enable and inspire more people to engage in decision-making and I want to see a parliament that’s more representative of the people. I believe in working together for a fairer society.”

3 replies on “The Case for Electoral Reform – Stronger Than Ever”

    1. Parliamentary Reform
      The anniversary celebrations of the signing of the Magna Carta have induced statements from around the world to the effect that it was the beginning of parliamentary democracy. My dictionary defines democracy in part as government where the power is vested in the people collectively and where people have equality in rights. Those rights include having their views taken into account when electing representatives forming the government. When the total votes cast in a General Election result in a government of representatives who are not supported by the majority of voters, it is a redefinition of the term democracy.
      The number crunchers have shown that the decision as to which Parliamentary Party has a majority of elected MPs is usually and ultimately the prerogative of a only a relatively small number of marginal constituencies. This effectively says that the votes in the rest of the country are largely irrelevant. For 60 years I have always exercised my right to vote but for the last 34 of them I have lived in a constituency where the candidate of the Party of my choice has no chance of being elected. If I am still here for the next General Election, is there any point in voting again.
      The Party of my choice is a phrase I use to describe one where the principles by which I live comes closest to matching the ethos of that Party. I do not agree with everything it does or stands for, nor do I disagree with everything other Parties propose. I make my choice based on the information I gather from the media about what the Party represents. Each Party incorporates its ideas in the form of a manifesto. I have to say I have never read a manifesto and I venture to suggest that the overwhelming majority of voters in the country would say the same.
      We are informed of some of the contents of the manifestos mainly by the media. It is true that Parties produce leaflets which are pushed through our letter boxes at election times but these only contain the bare bones. The media present us with more details in the form of comment but all comment is spun. We are all prone to using spin whenever we comment on an issue. We pick out or emphasise the bits that support the point we are trying to make, and ignore or downplay those which might oppose it. The media, which inevitably has a vested interest in the outcome of an Election, only present to us the details, and even then in a manner which support that interest. I suspect that if the situation allowed all of us to accept or reject different parts of each manifesto, the Party which forms the new Government would find little justification to fulfill all of what it currently claims is its mandate.
      If we take a moment to look at how the contents arrive in the manifestos. People with like minded interests realise that they can best further those interest by forming groups. The larger the group the more likely it requires a mechanism for controlling its activities. Thus committees are formed and members of the group decide who should be on those committees. Most people are happy just to belong and are therefore content to let the more committed to take up the responsibilities and the work these entail. It follows that committees generally comprise the enthusiasts and the activists among the members and where it is necessary to appoint officers, these are more often than not the more enthusiastic and more active.
      Political Parties are groups albeit with larger memberships than most. The same principles apply and the leaders of the Parties tend to be those with a greater commitment than ordinary members. It is from amongst these, dare I say more extreme, members that the policies are formed and then appear in the manifestos. The average member probably supports the principle behind the policies but not necessarily to the same extent as the writers. After the Election it is also probably true to say that some of the more moderate MPs, given a free choice, would not go along with everything their Party proposes at least in the way in which the policies might be implemented.
      How then to address the problem of Governments introducing legislation that the majority of voters might not support. A number of groups, including Parties whose total votes do not result in what they see as a fair number of MPs, have suggested electoral reform. There are methods of election that would produce a more representative Parliament, but to persuade members of the largest Parties to adopt them is unlikely as they would lose the advantage that the present system gives them.
      There is another way of ensuring that all votes have some meaning although if introduced it would create considerable problems for Parties wishing to implement policies as they do now, even though a majority of voters might disagree with them. This is to take into account how every elector voted at the General Election whenever legislation is voted upon by MPs. If it was introduced it would force Parties to take into account the wishes of the whole electorate instead of just those who voted for them. It would also free MPs from pressure by Party Whips enabling individuals to object to more extreme and unpopular measures, if they feel most of their constituents would wish them to do so, thereby adhering to the principle that MPs represent everyone in their constituencies.
      The method is simple. Each MP is allocated a digital constituency smart card. This records the Party of that MP, together with the number of votes he/she received at the General Election, alongside the total numbers of votes given to each of the candidates of the other Parties who succeeded in gaining at least one seat in the House. When legislation comes to the vote, the smart cards are passed through a card reader.
      This records how the votes are cast on the legislation. If all of one Party’s MPs vote the same then the total electoral votes of that Party are aggregated together. If a Party’s MPs wish to vote on different sides then the total electoral votes of that Party are proportioned according to how many voted each way. Whether the legislation passes or fails is decided by a majority of all the electoral vote totals in favour or against as aggregated from all of the smart cards.

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