Electoral Reform and What It Would Mean For The UK

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In the days following the General Election, one strand of discontent has been shown to dominate others. The unfairness of the United Kingdom electoral system became evident over the election night, with the number of votes for political parties failing to match seats and therefore the amount of power they now hold as the opposition to the Conservative Party. The nature of democracy in the UK is arguably under question with the current system of First Past the Post.

Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party MP, has called for immediate electoral reform. She included in her acceptance speech that “It is ever clearer tonight that the time for electoral reform is overdue, and it is only proportional representation that will deliver a parliament that is truly legitimate and that better represents the people it is meant to represent.” The Green Party received 1,157,613 votes across the UK and came second in four constituencies, including the Labour stronghold of Liverpool Riverside, yet only managed to hold their seat of Brighton Pavilion – this seat was won in 2010 while the Greens received 265,243 total votes across the UK. Equally, UKIP received almost 4 million votes nationwide while only holding the Clacton seat Douglas Carswell won as a UKIP candidate in the 2014 by-election, following his defection from the Conservative Party.

Proportional representation (PR), the system called for by the Green Party, is the method of voting where the number of votes a party gains is directly proportionate to the party’s representation in parliament. The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method of PR and the European Parliament elects MEPs using the d’Hondt system. The most famous example of this system in history is its role in Weimar Germany. A German political party could gain a seat with as little as 60,000 votes, and the increasing popularity of the Nazi Party through the late 1920s and early 1930s can be tracked by its increasing representation in the Reichstag. Although this holds a massive scare-factor, true democracy was exercised during the brief history of the Weimar Republic. Yet this also led to unstable coalitions that frequently collapsed; the longest government lasted 18 months, from May 1921 to November 1922, under Chancellor Joseph Wirth. With no clear winning party under this proportional representation and the increasingly polarised politics after the British General Election, similar to that of the politics of Weimar Germany, the question is asked of whether proportional representation would actually work in Westminster today.

It is widely argued that electoral reform is only a point of interest for small but increasingly successful political parties, but many Labour supporters have taken to social media to express their concerns on the matter. The Labour Party received 30.4% of the vote and are represented in 232 out of 650 seats in Westminster; the Conservatives, only the other hand, won a majority of 331 seats after obtaining just 36.9% of the vote, only a marginally higher percentage than Labour. The Liberal Democrats, after losing a staggering 49 seats on Thursday, are still arguing for electoral reform. Upon entering a coalition with David Cameron in 2010, Nick Clegg promised to back reform for a fairer voting system than First Past the Post. The 2011 referendum on voting reform, hoping to change electoral methods to the system of Alternative Voting (AV), resulted in a 68% ‘No’ vote and 32% ‘Yes,’ with a mere 42.2% turnout. This system, vastly unlike the First Past the Post method, requires voting for constituency candidates from most to least preferable. Once the overall votes are cast, the least favoured candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the candidate voters chose as their second choice. This is repeated until there is a clear winner. AV works in the way that First Past the Post fails, in that a party would never win a majority if more people voted against than for them. This General Election would have a completely different outcome in the sense that 63.1% of voters voted against the Conservatives.

The Electoral Reform Society wants “to see a fairer, more proportional voting system that makes votes match seats.” Their argument is that votes are clearly wasted under First Past the Post and that political polarisation is a key feature of this system. The society also backs more diversity in the Houses of Parliament, particularly with the rise in female MPs. The number of women in Westminster has increased from a total of 147 in 2010 to 191, including the 20 year-old politics student, Mhairi Black, the Scottish Nationalist Party MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. Alongside this is the push for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Reform of the House of Lords is also desired as the Electoral Reform Society believes that the House of Lords should be fully elected in a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which, much like AV, requires voting in order of preference until multiple winners are elected. After reform, no reserved seats for any faith community leaders or Bishops of the Church of England would be permitted.

So what would all this mean for Britain? The BBC worked out that while the Tories would still be the biggest party, their number of seats would drop drastically to just under 250 with proportional representation. UKIP would be the third biggest party in Westminster, and the SNP seat surge would be limited to 31. It would account for the ‘Rise of UKIP,’ would give the Green Party increasing representation alongside their increasing popularity, and would hit the Liberal Democrats less devastatingly. Labour would actually lose seats, as would the Conservatives, and the political landscape may be changed even more drastically that it did over the course of this election. This result was calculated with the system devised by German mathematician Victor D’Hondt, whereby the party with highest number of votes is given instantly given an MP. The highest starting number is divided by the number of MPs won added by 1, with second highest number then given an MP. This continues until the number of spaces are filled.

With this in mind, it is clear that change is needed for democracy in the UK to be truly exercised. But if change were enacted it would be another case of voting for the best option out of a bad bunch of possibilities, a recognisable feature in modern-day politics.

Words by Caitlin O’Connor


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