British politics has been dogged over the last few months by disillusionment, allegations of gerrymandering and voter suppression, queries over the unelected House of Lords, sexual harassment scandals and the impact of Brexit on democracy.
The public are more wary than ever of the system which administers politics in Britain, with 44% believing that Parliament does not represent them. Working class respondents are almost twice as likely to feel this way.
Under growing pressure for electoral reform, MPs on Friday had the chance to bring the voting age down to 16. Conservative MPs managed to filibuster the vote, speaking for over 90 minutes in an earlier debate on police body cameras in order to leave no time for the ‘Votes At 16’ debate. The fury of opposition MPs was amplified by the fact that the Conservatives allow members to vote for party leaders – and therefore, potentially, the Prime Minister – at 16 years old.
Earlier still this week, Parliament rehashed arguments for and against changing another aspect of the political landscape, our voting system, after a petition in favour of a change to the Proportional Representation (PR) system reached the necessary 100,000 signatures. The government issued a lengthy response to the petition, and Conservative MP Steve Double led the defence of the First Past The Post (FPTP) system in Westminster Hall. But with over 60% of the public now wanting reform, will this defence stand up to scrutiny?
Disproportionality of FPTP
As stated by Labour, SNP, Green and Liberal Democrat MPs at Monday’s debate, the major problem with our current voting system is that it delivers vastly disproportionate parliaments relative to votes cast.
The candidate with the most votes of any party in each constituency wins the parliamentary seat, but this does not mean they represent the majority of constituents – as demonstrated in 2015, when Alasdair McDonnell was elected in the Belfast South constituency with just 24.5% of the vote, meaning that over three quarters of his constituents voted against him.
This is not an isolated incident – in 2015, 331 of 650 MPs were elected with under 50% of the total votes in their constituency, and 191 with less than 30% of the backing of the electorate. These discrepancies follow on a national scale – in 2015, the total vote share of the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP was 24.3%, but they received just 1.6% of the seats. By contrast, the Conservatives won an outright majority of seats with just over a third of the votes.
A huge proportion of votes are essentially ‘wasted’, therefore – between 50% and 75% (15-22.5 million voters) in 2015, depending on definitions. Another aspect of this flaw is the existence of ‘safe seats’, where it is essentially impossible to unseat a party in a certain constituency.
Voters complain of feeling ignored by complacent representatives while parties target the small number of unpredictable ‘swing seats’ which generally decide the election. Although the latest general election saw some upsets in previously safe seats, this was due to the polarisation of the vote between Conservatives and ‘non-Conservatives’.
This increasing polarisation of UK politics, while part of a global trend, can also be partially attributed to the FPTP system. As attested to by Caroline Lucas MP, 33% of the public believes that voting for their preferred party makes no difference, and around a third of people voted ‘tactically’ this year – double the 2015 figure.
Tactical voting is a direct response to the disproportionality of FPTP, with voters choosing the option most likely to defeat their least favourite candidate, rather than feeling able to vote positively.
In defence of FPTP
Faced with these broad criticisms, various MPs attempted to mount spirited defences of Britain’s current system. Chief among those was that the public ‘had already rejected changing the voting system’ in a 2011 referendum, with several suggesting this meant that voters had rejected Proportional Representation.
These claims were generally ridiculed – the referendum offered a choice between FPTP and ‘Alternative Vote’, a system widely acknowledged to have little impact on proportionality and safe seats, and was therefore neither comparable to PR nor capable of fixing the flaws of FPTP. Conservative MPs also alleged that most voters supported their 2017 manifesto promise to retain FPTP before it was pointed out by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse that nearly 60% did not vote Conservative.
The debate swiftly turned to practicalities, with Steve Double MP claiming that while not proportional, FPTP led more often to strong majority governments “who can govern” decisively without the need for coalitions with the potential to allow “extremist parties” to gain seats.
This was again met with derision, with MPs reminded that recent coalitions had been far from ‘strong’ and that Northern Ireland’s conservative Democratic Union Party (DUP) was currently propping up the government. SNP MP Tommy Sheppard added that the point of a representative democracy was surely to deliver a government with the majority of the electorate behind them, rather than a majority for one party.
As also mentioned in the government response to the petition, MPs defended the link to constituencies that FPTP provides, a more popular aspect of the system which ideally leads to better representation of local residents. MPs in favour of electoral reform were quick to counter that many proportional systems also retain a constituency link, and that contrary to FPTP, where over half of all MPs were not elected by the majority of their constituency, many alternatives could provide constituents with representatives with views on average more similar to theirs.
In response to this, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore suggested that these alternatives were overly complex, and that British voters preferred FPTP for its relative simplicity. In turn, Caroline Lucas MP questioned whether British voters were any less capable than those in Germany, Finland, Denmark or other countries with PR systems. With only minutes remaining of the debate, MPs in favour of PR took this cue to further examine the record of these countries.
In support of PR
As Labour MP Paul Blomfield pointed out, over 80% of OECD countries use some form of PR. These countries are also more likely to have lower income and economic inequality, increased political participation, fairer distribution of public goods, higher scores on the UN Human Development Index, less likelihood of armed conflicts, less corporate control of politics and media, and more effective responses to long-term issues, such as climate change or large-scale infrastructure projects.
This is largely put down to one major advantage of the system – that it requires cooperation and compromise between political parties. This minimises the short-termist policy by one-party governments, also avoiding costly policy reversals and the polarisation of views which are common features of British politics, and instead provides long-term political stability.
The future for UK democracy
What is important to note is that MPs recognised that while PR systems can solve the major flaws of FPTP, they do have their own drawbacks. The recent Austrian and German elections were a prime example, being largely defined by opposition to the so-called ‘Grand Coalitions’ which boosted the votes for extremist parties.
As the heated debate came to a close, the issue was perhaps best summarised respectively by MPs Steve Double and Caroline Lucas, remarking that “no system is perfect”, but “some are better than others”. So with such clear public support for voting reform – at least for moving away from FPTP – can we expect to see such a change in the near future?
Change on the horizon?
The biggest obstacle to electoral reform in the UK is not public opinion, but the way that FPTP overwhelmingly benefits the two biggest parties – the Conservatives and Labour – over others. However, around 200 Labour candidates at the last election pledged to support electoral reform, and over 70% of members believe FPTP should be replaced by PR. While less keen on a representative system, Conservative members still support system change and PR by a wide margin, but it is unlikely that the party will release the advantage it currently enjoys.
The future of the UK’s voting system therefore rests with the Labour leadership. With all major parties but the Conservatives advocating more representative democracy, backed by the public – and particularly the younger generation – across all political backgrounds, electoral reform would only be a matter of time.
Conversely, if Labour join the Conservatives in refusing to relinquish an unfair system that is rigged in their favour, their newfound groundswell of support may evaporate as fast as that of the Liberal Democrats after their disastrous 2010 Conservative coalition.
In an atmosphere of widespread political disillusionment, this may be Labour’s best chance to fundamentally alter the fabric of British democracy, giving up the ‘all-or-nothing’ struggle and taking a smaller seat at a much friendlier, more representative table.