After the recent Electoral Reform Society's report that 6.5million people voted tactically in the last election rather than for who they truly believed in, and a recent Make Votes Matter rally in Manchester, the idea of fair democratic representation is getting into the headlines again. The call for PR continues to gain traction as people look back on another election that was not fully representative.
No, I'm not talking about what PR most commonly stands for, Public Relations, (although our politicians do need to be better at that as well). I'm talking about Proportional Representation. This is the idea that the number of votes a party gets should match the number of seats it gets. It's a simple, fair idea, but it is unfortunately not reality. It's an idea that would provide a more effective, democratic and representative form of government that would force an oft polarised system into partnership, whilst representing the needs and hopes of a broad coalition of groups.
Above: Protest for PR, Bristol, 2010. Photo Credit: Rob Brewer
First let me illustrate the unfairness of the current electoral system (know as First-Past-The-Post) by looking at the most unrepresentative election in recent history, the 2015 General Election. In this election despite winning only 36.8% of the popular national vote the Conservative Party won 50.8% of the seats. Whilst the SNP won only 4.7% of the popular vote but 8.6% of the seats. The biggest evidential disparity can be seen in UKIP winning 12.6% of the vote but only 1 seat (or 0.2% of the available seats). When the votes are added up UKIP won more votes than the SNP and Liberal Democrats combined, yet whilst these two parties took home a combined 64 seats, UKIP took home one! Regardless of what your political leanings are it must be admitted that there is staggering inequality in the value of voters, with a vote for the SNP clearly being worth more than a vote for UKIP in that election.
If we look deeper at the results across Scotland in that election we see an even worse disparity. The SNP won 50% of the vote across Scotland and 56 of a total 59 seats available. That left the remaining 3 seats to the other 50% of voters in Scotland. In what democracy can it ever be deemed fair that half of voters get 3 seats whilst the other half get 56 seats? The reason this happened was because in every seat across Scotland (and across the UK) voters have one vote which they cast for a local parliamentary candidate. The candidate who wins the most votes in each seat will win their given seat. So for example in a single seat if the SNP win 36% of the vote, Labour win 35%, the Conservatives win 20% and Liberal Democrats win 9%, the SNP win this seat even though the other 64% of voters chose other candidates. Theoretically if this happened in every single seat, the SNP could win 100% of seats with 36% of the vote whilst the other 64% of voters get 0% seats, as almost happened in Scotland.
An alternative is clearly needed and below I will outline what this alternative needs to be to make our democracy fairer. A system that will not disenfranchise but give everyone an equal voice.
We need a system of local constituency MPs who are then paired with MPs elected under PR. This way there is a shared burden and then people can vote for who they believe in nationally and who they believe best represents their interests locally. This system of voting is commonly known as the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system. In doing this we would maintain the popular one-MP-to-one-constituency link whilst making sure that seats match votes. You would vote exactly as you do now for who you want as your local MP in parliament, but you would then get an additional vote for who you want on a national level. Your second vote for a national party combined with everyone else's vote for a national party will equate to the number of seats they get. Thus if the Conservatives won 36% of votes on a national scale they would get 36% of the national seats and if the Liberal Democrats won 10% of the vote on a national scale they would get 10% of the seats and so on. This combination of a national vote with a local vote would strengthen our democracy and would allow all political persuasions as well as local interests to be represented according to their true support. Smaller parties would be given a voice whilst the over-representation of the largest parties would be reduced to a fairer reflection of reality. Opposing views would have to work together for the common good, rather than continue down a trajectory of deeper polarisation and increased nastiness as we have seen in recent times. Most importantly every vote would matter equally.
Some argue that the introduction of PR into British elections would weaken government as it would be incredibly unlikely that one party would be able to form a government on its own. Yet although it is true that coalition governments would become the norm (as it is unlikely a single party could win over 50% of the popular vote in modern times) there is little evidence that government would be weakened or unable to function. A coalition government governed the UK from 2010-15 without any breakdown and Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has operated under a proportional system perfectly well for decades.
Abraham Lincoln stated in his famous Gettysburg Address that government should be "of the people, by the people, for the people". Sadly our way of electing government in the UK does not reflect this. That is why our way of electing politicians needs to change now more than ever, and that is why we need proportional representation, ideally in the form of MMP.