Should we have proportional representation?
The United Kingdom Alternative Vote Referendum, held in 2011, was a mighty victory for the current first-past-the-post system. ‘No’ won by a margin of 68% to 32%. Proposed by the Liberal Democrats, and introduced by the Coalition Government as a Tory gamble to pay for their coalition in 2010, the prospect of alternative voting appears to be long forgotten in history; the referendum might just about feature in an obscure pub quiz question in 20 years’ time. The Alternative Voting system is otherwise known as a ‘Single Transferrable Voting System’ and is currently used in Mayoral Elections. This system works by ‘knock out’ whereby the candidate with fewest votes in the first round concedes to voters’ second choices and so on until a winner is found. Therefore, the majority of voters would have marked their papers for the victorious candidate at some level. This defies the current political system, whereby a candidate can achieve as little as 30% of a constituency’s votes and still win the seat. The Liberal Democrats believed that because of a rise in smaller parties, it was about time they received better representation in Parliament and halted what is effectively a two-party system.
In 1966, the Labour Party and Conservative Party achieved 90% of the popular vote combined. Recent years have seen this vote-share diminish. Their combined share totalled 65% in 2010 and 67% in 2015. Assuming we take the 2017 ‘Brelexion’ as an anomaly (whereby the Conservatives and Labour took 82% of the public vote), there has been a definite surge in minor political parties and candidates. In 2015, 123 different registered political parties, not including independents, stood for election across the 650 constituencies. Of these, 11 parties saw an MP elected to parliament. Yet the Tories and Labour made up 85% of the MPs in Parliament. This is outrageous, bearing in mind they only achieved 67% of the combined vote. This was in contrast to the 12% of the popular vote UKIP managed, who earned just 0.2% of the total MPs in Parliament. Similarly, despite attracting over 7% of the popular vote the Liberal Democrats were represented by only 1.2% of MPs. The Tory and Labour hegemony has to end. Quite simply, it is not what has been voted for. In 2015, 63% of the electorate voted against a Conservative government. They controlled 50.8% of the Commons.
A ‘Single Transferrable Voting System’ would challenge such disproportion. It would allow the minor parties to field candidates supported by a greater likelihood of winning seats. Assuming constituents voted for exactly who they wanted in power – rather than voting tactically – the minor parties would gain traction. Both Labour and the Conservatives’ traditional voters now show ideological loyalty to UKIP and the Lib Dems, with Labour also losing out to the Greens. In the current system though, this simply isn’t apparent, and minor parties are not gaining otherwise inevitable ground on Labour and the Tories. Not only this, but a new system would reduce the number of votes for sure winners or sure losers in constituencies formerly dominated by one major party or the other. For example, if we take the 2015 election results for the Isle of Wight, far fewer people voted for the Conservative victor, than for the other parties combined. Second preferences in a scenario like this could potentially have made a stark difference considering that no candidate achieved fewer than 3000 votes. This is an example which is mirrored in seats across the United Kingdom.
Similarly, STVS would allow people to cast their preferred vote without fearing the victory of another leading but relatively unpopular candidate. For example, somebody may vote Independent but select Labour as their second preference in attempt at preventing a Tory victory. If that independent vote were to be discounted, they would have the comfort of their second preference, a likeminded major candidate. In this way, the system could remain the same as before in tighter constituencies. Incidentally, in the Isle of Wight Andrew Turner may still have been selected under STVS, as despite only 41% of the electorate voting for him, 65% were broadly aligned with him.
Other less desirable proportional systems are possible – one example would be a ‘Party List Proportional Representation’ election. Political parties would campaign with a list of candidates across the country with No.1 being their first selectee and No.650 being their last (assuming they fielded a candidate in every seat). This is not a fair form of proportional representation. First of all, this system favours parties fighting on a national scale. This would mean that local parties, such as Mebyon Kernow (Cornwall) or Yorkshire First (Yorkshire) would be unlikely to get their first elected MP. Independents would also stand no chance of being selected, even if they were extremely popular in their local communities. In effect, this method could prevent small parties from ever entering an election as they would have to fight a national campaign rather than a constituency-based one. Also, any established Northern Irish or Welsh parties would never get elected as they would be unlikely to achieve a 5% plurality vote. English parties would dominate. Having said this, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and UKIP could benefit from this system. They possess the funds necessary to fight a national General Election and might well make huge gains in terms of their vote share and number of MPs.
PLPR clearly shows that a proportional system should not be sought at all costs, but from the statistics and examples above I would be in favour of changing the system to a STVS Constituency-based Proportional Representation method. Change though, is unlikely. Unless they were as desperate as in 2010/2011, a party in government would see no benefit in offering it. Elected under a first-past-the-post system, any governing party’s future in power would become incapacitated. Plus, they have a mandate. In 2011, 68% voted for no voting system changes. The system benefits any party that can achieve over half of the Parliamentary seats from just 37% of the popular vote, i.e. the Conservatives or Labour.