Voting systems and democracy

In two recent blogs I’ve been critical of the ‘First Past The Post’ system used in U.K. general elections and suggested that a proportional representation system would be better for democracy. I should expand on this argument.

At the U.K. general election in May this year, almost 30 million people voted, to elect representatives to 650 seats in the House of Commons. About 11 million voted for the Conservatives, giving them 332 seats. Nearly four million voted for the United Kingdom Independence Party, giving them one seat. (Yes, that’s right. One.) About one and a half million voted Scottish Nationalist, giving the SNP 56 seats. About one million voted Green, giving the Greens one seat. (Yep. One.)

On the matter of the SNP: half the Scottish voters (three million in total, more or less) voted for them, giving them 56 of the 59 Scottish seats – not 29 or 30.

These examples make it abundantly clear that the results yielded by the ‘First Past The Post’ system don’t reflect the wishes of the electorate. The system only serves the interests of the two biggest parties, Conservative and Labour, effectively making sure that they’re not seriously challenged by any other party, only by each other.

Another, subtler objection arises from this. If you don’t like the incumbent in your constituency, you vote against him or her, rather than voting for the candidate whom at heart you wish to support. The First Past The Post system therefore encourages negative voting, whereas proportional representation encourages positive voting. This has a knock-on effect on campaigning: the major parties spend far more time and effort on attacking their opponents’ policies than promoting their own. So because First Past The Post encourages negative voting, it also encourages negative campaigning. The public response to this lies somewhere on the spectrum between boredom and disgust, so a lot of people – especially young people – choose not to vote at all. No one could argue that this situation is healthy for democracy.

In view of these considerations, it isn’t surprising that when the Iron Curtain came down around 1990 and a wealth of new democracies emerged in Eastern Europe, each seeking a fair and democratic electoral system, not a single one of them opted for the British ‘First Past The Post’ model. They all espoused some form of proportional representation.

Proponents of First Past The Post argue that proportional representation generates unstable coalitions; I mentioned two of the many counter-examples in a previous blog. More persuasively, they point to the value of associating an individual Member of Parliament with an individual constituency, so every voter has a named and known representative in Westminster. It seems to me that if – when – our present untenable electoral system is replaced by a fairer one, this individual representation must somehow be maintained. (I’m not sure how this can be done, but I can’t believe that the problem is insoluble.) Also, to prevent lunatic fringe parties having a voice in parliament, I suggest we follow the practice adopted elsewhere, ruling that a party can’t have a seat in government unless it gains at least 5% of the popular vote.

I don’t suppose those in authority will listen to me as a private individual, but I believe I speak for a majority of the U.K. electorate. And if we still pretend to be a democracy, I suggest that the majority should prevail.

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