British politics is breaking open – the system is ripe for reform
Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society argues the case for proportional representation in UK General Elections.
At the time of writing, no one knows what the outcome of the UK General Election will be. But we do know one thing for certain – it’s going to be incredibly unfair. Britain’s First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system – where one candidate per constituency wins if they get more votes than the rest (while all other votes are ‘wasted’) – has long been the least proportional, and arguably the most undemocratic, way of electing our representatives. But in recent years the situation has gone from bad to worse.
For much of the 20th century, Britain had what was essentially a two-party system. In 1951, Labour and the Conservatives won over 95% of the vote – a situation for which FPTP was designed. Even in 1979, with a fairly strong Liberal Party, this figure was over 80%. But since then the number of voters for the two big parties has been in steep decline. In 2010, just 65% of people voted for the two main parties – a figure that’s likely to be mirrored this year.
The great contradiction
The party system is fragmenting, something we witnessed in the recent leaders’ debate on TV – seven party leaders going head to head, all with different views of what our country should be like, and all of them likely to win seats this May. It was the clearest reflection of the multi-party nature of our political system we’ve seen yet.
Yet we are in a dilemma. The UK now has a multi-party system, but it’s being crammed into an electoral system which caters to the old two-party politics. As a result, the main parties remain in a majoritarian mind-set, repeatedly insisting they will win a majority this May. It’s a claim that goes against all the polls – with Labour and Conservatives both hovering on around 33%. The stalemate is exacerbated by the rise of UKIP and the Greens, national parties which could take up to a fifth of the vote between them (while winning fewer than one in every 100 seats).
A lottery election
That’s not to say the system doesn’t still tend towards boosting the main parties. In 2010, the Conservatives won 36% of the vote, but 47% of seats. Similarly, Labour won 29% of the vote and 40% of the seats. Yet the Liberal Democrats trailed behind on 23% of the vote – and just 9% of seats. When votes aren’t reflected in the final outcome, it’s hard to say we live in a healthy democracy.
Random results like these don’t bode well for stability. Elections become more like lotteries – with small swings of the national vote massively affecting the final outcome. Our recent report showed that in Scotland, for example, the Scottish National Party could get a game-changing 50 or so seats or a paltry few, depending on relatively small shifts in the vote, while a high UKIP or Green vote could change the national government outcome – even if they win just a few seats.
Even with this overall unpredictability however, millions of voters already know how the election will turn out for them locally. The current voting system – centred around small single-member constituencies – creates hundreds of ‘safe seats’, where the same party wins time and time again (while smaller parties don’t get a look in). The average seat hasn’t changed hands since the 1960s, while some haven’t switched since the reign of Queen Victoria. Parties instead give up on these voters and focus their resources on a handful of ‘swing’ seats, spending up to 22 times as much money here as in safe constituencies. The only conclusion one can draw from this is that some votes count more than others.
At the Electoral Reform Society, we’ve already predicted the outcome for this election in over 360 constituencies, due to the nature of the voting system and the number of ‘safe seats’ in the UK. 26m voters already essentially know who their MP will be. Sadly we know that we’ll probably be mostly right – we did the same prediction back in 2010 and got just two results wrong – a 0.5% margin of error. Most would agree that this situation can’t be allowed to continue in any democracy worthy of its name.
A fairer system would allow other parties to get a look in. It would open up these hundreds of safe seats to real competition – often for the first time in decades – and in the process liven up British politics.
— Electoral Reform Soc (@electoralreform) April 12, 2015
It’s not such a radical idea. PR is used in Scotland for local elections, as well as for the devolved institutions. Brits are used to proportional voting for the EU elections – and for the millions of voters in the capital, the London Assembly. Yet the UK remains one of the few countries in the world to stick to this archaic method for its national Parliament, alongside Canada and the US – with the former seriously considering scrapping it after a series of hung parliaments.
Catching up with the rest of Europe by reforming Westminster’s electoral system would do a lot to bring British democracy into the 21st century. Politics is breaking wide open, with smaller parties on the rise. But disenchantment with the status quo is rife. If we had fair votes – alongside an elected House of Lords, votes at 16, regional devolution and caps on party donations and spending – we could see a real improvement in our democracy.
More and more people now agree. After 7th May, the voices for change are likely to grow louder. Then, hopefully, voters might get the democracy they deserve.
Katie Ghose is Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society