UK Politics

Is it time for a new electoral system?

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First-past-the-post (FPTP) is one of the most popular electoral systems in the world. As well as being the system of choice in the United Kingdom, it is also employed in parliaments such as in India and Canada.

Although the three mentioned influential countries adopt FPTP, among the world’s 35 most well recognised and established democracies, proportional representation is by far the most popular system, with only six out of the 35 not adopting it. Is it time the UK went the same way?

For an extended period of time, campaigners have called for the revamping of the UK’s electoral system. The main reasons behind a possible overhauling of the current voting system include: unfair representation of smaller parties, the ‘minority vote’, and the temptation to vote tactically.

During 2011, there was a referendum held on whether to replace the FPTP voting system with the alternative vote (AV) system. This wasn’t popular and the new proposed system was declined – not that surprising as AV wasn’t a particularly proportional system itself.

The most proportionally representative voting systems that could arguably be trialled or tried in the UK would include the single transferable vote (STV), party-list proportional representation, and the additional member system (AMS). I will outline these different systems, what they have to offer and also some of their drawbacks.

There certainly are positives with FPTP as the current system, which would be unfair not to acknowledge. First, the simplicity of this voting system, it is very easily understood and familiar for voters.

A further positive would be the idea of a one party strong government. The majority of the time, one party will win the election and they have five years to try and put into place the plans outlined in their manifestos.

Although there are some positives of the current electoral system, it could be suggested that there are numerous negatives and failings. Firstly, and what I believe to be the most significant failing of FPTP, is that smaller parties don’t obtain a fair representation.

An example of this would be in the 2015 general election, when UKIP received 12.6% of the vote, but this led to them having only one member of Parliament. This suggests that a number of votes were wasted and almost 13% of the UK population’s views were under represented, which opens up an argument about the legitimacy of its democracy.

A further negative of this voting system is the issue of tactical voting.  An example would be, in a constituency that usually returns a Labour MP, there is not much point voting for a Conservative, as they are unlikely to have their candidate elected.

Tactical voting is effectively voting for ‘the best out of a bad bunch’. Another significant flaw of FPTP is the idea of the ‘minority vote’.  An example of this would be the 2015 election, where the Conservative Party won the general election, receiving 36.9% of the vote. This means that 63.1% of the population didn’t want the Conservatives in power, and this opens up the debate about how proportional this current system actually is.

The STV is a form of proportional representation, and the first proposed alternative to FPTP.  It is currently adopted in Ireland, Malta, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and also local elections in Scotland – just to name a few.

The significant benefit of this system is that the voter does not need to worry about ‘vote splitting’ or tactical voting, they simply have to rank the candidates in order of preference. Voters rank as many or as few candidates as they wish and all MPs are then elected on individual merit.

Advantages of this voting system include the increased proportionality as there is wider choice of representatives and no tactical voting as every vote does count.  However, the drawbacks would be the complexity of the elections and the increased chance of a coalition government.

An interesting point to make is that coalition governments, in some people’s eyes are potentially a positive, as parties have to work together and it brings more ideas to the table. That being said, the last Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition was not a fruitful example of this.

A second potential electoral system alternative would be the party-list PR system.  It is the most popular method of electing representatives in the world, with more than 80 countries using it. There are two variations of this voting system: the open list system and the closed list system.

Open list is adopted in Chile and Colombia, and gives the voters some choice in the representative that is elected, whereas the closed system is in complete control of the party leaders and officials and adopted in European elections. However, the evident benefit of this system is the significant proportionality, even if the voters do not necessarily get the local representation they desire.

The final proposed alternative is AMS, which is used in Scotland and New Zealand. In Scotland this system gives the voter two votes: the first vote is a constituency vote, the second vote gives you a chance to vote for your favourite party outright.

The results of this second vote lead to additional members being added to top-up the parties’ seats and match the voting percentages they received, providing a fairer representation of peoples favourite parties, countrywide. The slight issues associated with this voting system are the cost, its complex nature, and the fact it can also lead to more coalition governments.

The debate about the voting system in the UK really is a fascinating one. During this tough time tackling COVID-19, the idea of a new voting system isn’t at the top of people’s agendas, and quite rightly so.

However, my suggestion going forward is that FPTP should be scrapped and replaced with the STV system, which provides greater representation, eliminates tactical voting, and therefore strengthens the position of the UK as one of the world’s strongest democracies.

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