Britain’s Electoral System: Why ‘Proportional Representation’ Would Not Work

Commentary by Louis VIS and Gabriella ATKINS

by Furfur, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
The difference between the popular vote (inner circle) and the number of seats won by major political parties (outer circle) in the UK 2015 general elections – by Furfur, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The result of the 2015 General Elections in the United Kingdom (UK) took everyone by surprise. Whilst most pollsters had predicted that both the Conservatives (or Tories) and the Labour Party would collect around 33% of the national vote, the results of May 7th proved them wrong. The right-wing Tories actually ended up collecting 36.8% of the national share of the vote whilst the Labour Party got 30.5%. Although at first the difference between both parties may not seem dramatic, the use of the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system gave the Tories an overall majority in the House of Commons (HoC) with 330 seats. Even though the Labour Party trailed by only 6.3%, the use of the FPTP system meant that they received nearly a hundred seats less (232 seats). On the other hand, the Scottish National Party (SNP) with only 4.7% of the national vote managed to secure 56 seats in Westminster, whilst the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) who collected 7.9% of votes only secured 8 seats. Not to mention the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which collected over 4 million votes (12.7%) but only ended up with only 1 seat in Westminster.

It is unsurprising that since the general election, the FPTP system has been heavily criticised by politicians and the media alike for failing to provide a proper representation in parliament. Many critics support the introduction of  ‘proportional representation’ (PR) instead of the FPTP system currently used in the UK. However, people often forget that ‘pure’ PR does not always lead to a better electoral system.

Although the FPTP system does indeed have several flaws – exaggerating majorities, wasting votes and allowing parties to govern with a minority of the population’s votes – it allows the formation of strong legislative assembly thus helping and improving government effectiveness. Furthermore, adopting a ‘pure’ PR system would not obviously overcome all the FPTP’s limitations. In reality, whilst ‘pure’ PR systems do create proportionality of representation, it can still produce disproportionality in the way power is shared in parliament. A ‘pure’ PR system actually gives small parties a disproportionately large share of power. Although France achieved better proportionality in its assembly when it dropped the ‘modified’ FPTP system in 1985 and adopted a list PR, the system change also allowed its extreme right Front National (FN) party to flourish.

Furthermore, ‘pure’ PR actually makes coalition governments more likely, which often results in politicians deliberating in smoked-filled rooms and behind closed doors – in itself not a particularly democratic process. Belgium has shown how messy coalitions can be. In 2011 it set the world record for the longest amount of time a country has gone without a democratic government – 589 days, surpassing the previous record of 353 days held by Cambodia in 2002-2003. A similar crisis also occurred in 2007, and in the 2014 general elections Charles Michel’s four-party coalition replaced Elio Di Rupo’s six-party coalition. Coalition governments also present the problem of accountability. Whilst each side can blame the other – because when does a coalition ever turn into a coherent unit – it is difficult to see who is responsible for what policies, a process that muddies the water and makes the democratic process more difficult. Whilst Belgium might be an extreme example, it is a comparable Western example and does demonstrate the limitations of ‘pure’ PR when compared to the UK’s FPTP system.

It is worth remembering that whilst many moan about the current FPTP electoral system in the UK, it is often forgotten that in May 2011 the Conservative-LibDem coalition called a referendum on the possibility of introducing a new electoral system in Britain, the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV), a modified and diluted version of the FPTP system. However, the AV was rejected by 68% with a turnout of only 45.1%.

Ultimately the Belgian example shows that ‘pure’ PR does have heavy limitations, and that weak deliberative governments do not exert the same appeal to voters as a strong and effective legislative government, like Westminster. This is why we should stay with the current FPTP system rather than switch to a ‘pure’ PR system. However, if we were to change, the best alternative would be to adopt the system used for presidential elections in France, where two rounds are required before electing the president, thus allowing people to vote with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second.

A final pause for thought: the United Kingdom is one of the longest-standing democracies in modern Europe. Perhaps the old mantra ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is applicable here.

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One thought on “Britain’s Electoral System: Why ‘Proportional Representation’ Would Not Work

  1. We feel very privileged to share with you a few additional comments on the topic sent to us by Professor Charles Pattie (Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Sheffield):

    ‘One thought – the French Presidential system is in effect a variant on AV (with second preferences expressed in the run-of stage rather than in the initial ballot). But, as you rightly point out, AV was rejected by the UK electorate in the 2011 referendum…

    My guess is that there’s very little real stomach among either Conservative or Labour politicians to push for any electoral reform at the moment. Neither really wants to shake up the current system, as both will lose out as a result (and the AV referendum effectively killed the debate here anyway). Nor are the other parties in much of a position to push for any change. The LDs are too weak to insist, the SNP is eyeing the exit so doesn’t really care (and in any case would lose out from PR for Westminster). And UKIP is a) too small in Parliamentary terms to exert any pressure and b) too flaky/distracted by the EU referendum to concentrate on a concerted campaign. What’s more, I don’t think there’s really that much public supprt. The Av referendum is an indicator. But the other factor -a s you also rightly point out – is the experience of coalition: the Con-LD coalition wasn’t much liked, and most voters would prefer a single party government, so anything which risks more coalitions is unpopular – and that means there isn’t much public support for reform. So my guess is that electoral reform for Westminster elections has actually fallen off the policy agenda for the foreseeable future. But, as Harold Wilson supposedly said way back in the 1960s, a week is a long time in politics – who knows where we’ll be in a few years time!’

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