How good an idea is proportional representation?

While the SNP were awarded 56 seats from 1.5 million votes in the last election, UKIP were awarded just one seat from 3.8 million votes. Although UKIP won over 250% times of the votes of SNP, they won less than2% of the seats of SNP. Why? The answer is simple: First-past-the-post.

FPTP awards seats, not in proportion to the number of votes won, but the number of constituencies won. The system therefore is far from proportional as parties could win millions of votes yet not win a single seat, by not winning a constituency. This results in a vast amount of wasted votes, as if the voter’s chosen party doesn’t win the constituency their vote is worthless and has thus been wasted. In 2015 over half of votes were wasted in this way. This problem is reinforced by the significant number of safe seats, meaning that certain parties have very little chance of winning the seat. A vote for a party such as this would be wasted, so what motivation would there be for say a Socialist in leafy Buckinghamshire to go to their polling station? And we wonder why so few people turn out to vote!

Due to the number of wasted votes and low electorate figure the public are ill-represented in Parliament and government. Following the 2015 election, 75% of British public were not represented in Parliament. Furthermore, just 37% of voters support the Conservatives. Thus, despite David Cameron protesting otherwise, it could be argued that the Conservatives do not have a mandate to govern. Therefore the majority of the population’s views will not be accounted for by Conservative policies.

This has led to many people calling for electoral reform, with a survey by ORB showing that 60% of people want FPTP to be scrapped. A petition has been sent to Downing Street to ‘Reform our voting system to make it fair and representative’, after receiving 220,000 signatures. Furthermore, a further petition ‘Make the seats match the votes’ has received backing from UKIP, SNP, Green Party, Liberal Democrats, and Plaid Cymru.

Opponents to reform argue that we have already held a referendum on the issue, and the public rejected AV. However, this argument is flawed on numerous fronts. Firstly, the public were largely brainwashed into voting ‘No’ with Conservative think tanks releasing anti-AV propaganda. Therefore the found it difficult to come to an informed decision on the matter. Secondly, AV was a ‘cop-out’ by the Liberal Democrats who were caught between a rock and a hard place in wanting to satisfy their supporters and wanting to reach a compromise with the Conservatives. This led to them choosing AV as the alternative, despite the vast majority of reform supporters being against AV, as it is not much more proportional than FPTP. For a lot of people therefore they were faced with a decision between the lesser of two evils, and thus the ‘No’ vote won resoundingly. Therefore to suggest that people have already had their say on electoral reform is incorrect.

A further argument made by electoral reform opponents is that it would be more likely to produce coalitions and unstable governments. However, are coalitions such a bad thing? Every German government since 1945 has been a coalition and it’s definitely been a success for them. Even if coalitions were unhealthy for countries could it be said that FPTP still guards against them and unstable governments? The last two elections have produced a coalition government and a majority of 12 seats. How can these be described as stable?

If FPTP does not guard against unstable governments, there can be no basis on which to keep it. It is an outdated system with its only real advantage greatly diminishing, while its limitations are too great to ignore. Reform is needed and fast.

3 comments

  1. 10 Jun ’15 at 4:38 pm

    Antony Hodgson

    The ‘stability’ argument is a red herring – ‘seesaw’ governing would be a more apt description of what FPTP (more accurately known as Single Member Plurality) gives us: successive governments that swing from ideology to ideology and undo what was done by the previous government. Proportional representation produces much more stable overall representation, since voters’ allegiances tend to swing relatively little from election to election. The result is much more stable public policy overall.

    The real issue, however, is that SMP denies half the voters a core civil right – namely, the right to be represented in Parliament. Just as we’ve all come to understand that it wasn’t right for women to be denied representation, so we will at some point collectively come to understand that it isn’t right for half the voters to have no representation of their own choosing in Parliament. The Single Transferable Vote, in particular, would do an excellent job of ensuring that well over 90% of voters would have helped elect an MP they explicitly support.

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    • 10 Jun ’15 at 5:09 pm

      Just a caveat

      It is worth noting though that STV is *not* a method of proportional representation in and of itself; the extent to which it produces proportionate outcomes is dependent entirely upon constituency configuration and the gap in support between parties (case in point: Fine Gael winning 46% of seats with 36% of votes in the 2011 Irish election, compared to 47% of seats with 36% of votes for the Tories in 2010). There are also questions about how reasonable it is to say that MPs elected are truly ‘supported’ by the voters; is someone who only attains the threshold after twelve rounds of redistributing preferences *really* enjoying popular support from the electorate? No system is perfect – if electoral reform happens, there should be a serious national conversation about what we feel matters most in a working democratic system, because every concept requires compromise on some principle. We need a New Zealand style referendum where we vote both on the principle of changing the system and then choose from a range of alternatives.

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    • As an Australian, this is a warning that you don’t want STV. It actually gives parties significantly more power than an open party list. It leads to horrible horse-trading and backing of minor parties to block opposition seats (we have a senator who received only 0.5% of the primary vote, despite the quota being 14.3%). Although this only happens if you allow an “above the line” system that we do, 95% of voters use it. Filling out the ballot using STV, particularly in a large electorate, is a horrible chore that most people simply aren’t up for.

      For true electoral reform, I think the Swiss style party list is as good as proportional representation can get.

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