THE BLOG

Electoral Change We Need

12/04/2015 20:06 BST | Updated 09/06/2015 10:59 BST

Of all the topics discussed during BBC Scotland's leaders' debate this week, perhaps one of the most important is an issue which is little discussed and oft ignored: our electoral system. Of the six speakers representing their respective parties, only Patrick Harvie mentioned it. Even Willie Rennie was mysteriously silent on the matter, despite it being one of his party's key election pledges back in 2010. And whilst I loathe agreeing with Jim Murphy and Ruth Davidson, they are right to say that the outcome of this election will be either a Labour- or Conservative-led government (albeit likely a coalition).

This is despite the fact that the UK is now clearly a multi-party system, simply demonstrated by requiring several parties to be represented at the various leader debates. Our electoral system is not designed to cope with this. It means smaller parties, whilst enjoying more support than ever in the run-up to 7th May, have little to be optimistic about.

The First Past the Post (FPTP) process, a system I have long been an opponent of, is biased towards the bigger parties. It gives the likes of Labour, the Conservatives and even the SNP the chance to win a huge number of seats with a disproportionate amount of votes. Indeed, in 2010 the Conservatives gained just 36.1% of the vote, but at Westminster this became 307 seats (47.2%). The reason FPTP disadvantages smaller parties is because they have few pockets of support large enough to overwhelm the other parties competing in the same constituency. For example, the Greens across the UK may enjoy the 7% of support Lord Ashcroft highlighted, but because this support is spread out rather than concentrated in specific areas, they are unlikely to gain 7% of Westminster's seats.

This seems to me, in a country that purports to be one of the most democratic in the world, to be decidedly undemocratic. And this is not an uncommon opinion. A change to the system received some support during the independence referendum, with the SNP's White Paper pledging to switch to Proportional Representation - but this has since been politely ignored by politicians and the media alike.

The issue was also raised relatively recently at UK level. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have a lot to answer for over the past five years, their attempt to change electoral system was one thing they did get right. You may recall that in 2011 a UK-wide referendum was held, this one to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV). You would be forgiven if you don't remember - it received very little media coverage and it was also held on the same day as the Holyrood election. AV was overwhelmingly defeated 67.9% to 31.2%, though turnout was just 42.2% UK-wide. Not exactly a democratic mandate to keep the system (nor, admittedly, to dismantle it). Don't get me wrong, AV was not the ideal solution to FPTP - it still has the ability to produce disproportional results in cases of electoral landslides. Even the Lib Dems didn't campaign ferociously for it, because it wasn't their preferred system. Much better would have been a move to the Single Transferable Vote or Party Lists.

Moving to a system of Proportional Representation would give smaller parties a better chance and produce a result at Westminster much more reflective of the electorate. It would also lessen the need for that most horrendous of vote - the Tactical. This year, I know Conservative supporters voting Labour to keep the SNP out, whilst some Green members are voting SNP to deny Labour a victory. This is a ridiculous thing to have to consider in an established democracy, but an undeniable truth of our electoral system.

The irony is that to make the change, one of the larger parties must be in favour of it - though this is unlikely to happen any time soon as it would only lessen their already tenuous grasp on power. Until a change is made, smaller parties must continue to fight an uphill battle and try to put a spotlight on the disproportionate, pseudo-democratic FPTP. Until then, smaller parties just have to hope that they have done enough, somewhere in Scotland, to topple a Lib Dem, Labour or SNP candidate.