The Blog

A Vote for Electoral Reform

With today's political landscape now taking smaller parties more seriously than ever, it is fairly safe to say that the current electoral system provides unrepresentative and undemocratic results... Politics should offer people real alternatives and people should be able to shape the decisions that affect their lives.

Why is the current system broken and what are the three main alternatives?

Following the 2010 general election, two thirds of the elected MPs lacked majority support. This was the highest figure in British political history and with the 2015 election swiftly approaching, a figure which we are unlikely to see reduced.

With today's political landscape now taking smaller parties more seriously than ever, it is fairly safe to say that the current electoral system provides unrepresentative and undemocratic results.

As such, it's time to distil the dry and overly technical discourse of electoral reform down, into manageable chunks which can be digested and considered by all.

This debate gets fairly mechanical, but don't let that put you off. There are important questions which need to be asked and even more important answers which need to be given. Without doing so, we tacitly consent to institutions which fail to reflect the people they serve. We need to ask and continuing asking the question, is our current electoral system the worst way of electing a representative government and what are our other options?

The current state of affairs

The UK currently uses several voting systems across different levels of government, and each one has radically different implications for parties, voters, governments and Parliament.

The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is the method used for election to the House of Commons. In this system, voters in each area (constituency) put a cross in the box next to their favoured MP from a choice of candidates. Voters can only vote for one candidate and the candidate that gets the most votes becomes the MP.

If one party gets an overall majority (more MPs than all the other parties put together), they form the government. If no party gets an overall majority, a situation which arose in 2010, it is called a hung parliament and two or more parties would be expected to work together to form a government.

For those of you who have voted and for those of you who have not, you should all be in agreement that this system is incredibly simple to use and understand. As such, it doesn't cost must to administer. It also means that it's easy to count votes and swift to work out who has won.

FPTP has historically produced two party systems. This has tended to produce single party governments that have not been shackled by the restraints of having to bargain with minority coalition partners to pass legislation. As a consequence, FPTF encourages broad-church centrist policies.

Extremist or fringe parties, have very little chance of being elected to parliament under FPTP because they are unlikely to gain anywhere near enough votes in any one constituency.

The case for reform

The best place to start this discussion begins with the disproportionate results it draws. The number of votes cast for a party in a general election does not accurately reflect the number of seats won. In 2010, despite getting 20% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats only won 9% of the seats.

We see this formula mirrored at constituency level too, where the winning candidate may have only received one third of the votes cast. Governments have been formed by parties who do not have the largest share of the total votes, as happened in 1974 when Labour won the general election on the number of seats gained but the Conservatives had a much larger share of the votes cast across the country.

Small constituencies also lead to the proliferation of safe seats, where the same party is almost guaranteed re-election at each general election. This can lead to specific areas being ignored when it comes to policy framework as well as voters in the region becoming disenfranchised. More worryingly, it can mean that the 'safest' looking candidate is most likely to be offered a chance to stand for the election, restricting the opportunity for women and minorities to stand.

For me, the biggest issue with FPTP is the treatment of smaller parties under its control. Although smaller parties may have a sizeable national cross country support, they are never given a proportional number of MPs because there are not enough votes concentrated in constituencies to let them win seats. Of course, encouraging two-party politics can be advantageous, keeping extremist policies at bay, but in the multi-party culture in which we live, smaller parties with significant support are hugely disadvantaged and always take the biggest hit.

Put simply, FPTP wastes huge numbers of votes. Any vote cast for a losing candidate in a constituency and any vote cast for a winning candidate above the level they need to win a seat, count for nothing. This knowledge encourages and leads to tactical voting, where people, such as my myself, feel they have no choice but to vote for a specific party on the basis on preventing another party from being elected. Worse still, FPTP stops people from voting altogether, believing their vote will count for nothing.

A vote for change

Liberal Democrats' leader Nick Clegg and UKIP party leader Nigel Farage, have not kept their desire for electoral reform quiet. Clegg has shown particular interest in the Single Transferrable Vote and Farage supports the AV Plus system (as recommended by the Jenkins commission on electoral reform in 1998).

So how do these systems work?

The Alternative Vote:

The Alternative Vote (AV) is a preferential system where the voter has the chance to rank the candidates in order of preference. The voter puts a '1' by their first choice and a '2' by their second, and so on, until they no longer wish to express any further preferences or run out of candidates.

In a situation where a candidate gains more than half of the first preference votes, the candidate is elected outright. If not, the losing candidate (i.e. the one with the least first preferences) is eliminated and their voters are then redistributed according to the second preference marked on the ballot paper. This process continues until a winner emerges.

Supporters of AV will champion the fact that all MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. AV also penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes. Moreover, unlike FPTP, it reduces the need for tactical voting because voters can select their first choice candidates without fear of wasting their votes.

The AV system is, however, not a form of proportional representation. In certain condition, such as a landslide, it can produce a more disproportion result that FPTP and parties could still form a government with less than 50% of first choice votes.

In a UK-wide referendum in 2011 the British public were asked if they wanted to replace First Past the Post (FPTP) with the Alternative Vote. The referendum produced a definitive no answer.

AV plus

In response to AV's proportional failings, emerges AV plus.

In this system, as well as ranking candidates in order or preferences as you do with the AV, voters are given a second ballot paper and asked to cast an additional vote for a party or choose their favourite candidate from a top-up list. Additional seats in parliament are awarded to each party based on its national share of this additional vote. MPs elected in this way are drawn from lists published by each party.

In addition to the advantages of the Alternative Vote, this system also means voters are given both a constituency vote and a regional vote which means that parties would have an incentive to campaign across the whole country and not just in the marginal seats.

AV plus produces a fairer result as elected MPs have the support of a majority of their local electorates. It also produces majority governments when the voters express a desire for one party.

The downside of AV plus involves redrawing constituency boundaries and a system which is slightly more complicated than FPTP, which has its own set of issues.

Single Transferable Vote

Leading the proportional representation movement (where the number of seats more accurately reflects the number of votes cast for each party) is the Single Transferrable Vote (STV).

Supporters of this system, such as the Liberal Democrats', say that it is more transparent than AV plus because electors select named candidates rather than voting for party lists.

Like AV, voters are asked to rank their preferences on the ballot paper. But the main difference between the systems is that STV offers constituencies more than one MP from particular parties.

Ballot papers are gathered into piles according to preferences, like AV, but because the constituency has more than one member representing it, the winning threshold has to be calculated using a quota system.

The quota (the number of votes necessary to secure the election of a candidate) is equal to the result plus one. The total number of valid ballot papers are divided by the number of candidates to be elected plus one. So if there are six seats to be filled, the total number of valid ballot papers is divided by seven. When a candidate reaches the quota, they are deemed elected. If, like in the AV system, no candidate achieved the winning threshold, then the least popular candidate is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed. This process goes on until all the seats are filled.

STV presents a system which minimises wasted votes, allows people to vote for known individuals rather than unknown party lists and motivates political parties to contest every seat because elections cannot be won by influencing only a few swing voters in marginal seats.

Some of you will already be familiar with the system, which is already used for European Parliamentary elections, elections within many voluntary organisations and trade unions, as well as within the Northern Ireland Assembly and local Scottish elections.

What now?

It's clear that under FPTP, in situations where the winning parties received over 50% of the vote, the system is a total success. But, despite Conservative leader David Cameron and his Labour counterpart Ed Miliband insisting that their parties are able to win an overall majority in the 7 May poll, current opinion polls suggest the election could result in another hung Parliament. It's very likely that the two main political parties will receive less that two thirds of the vote in 2015. In this situation, the hung Parliament would present another instance of parliamentary seats which are misrepresentative of the number of votes cast for each party.

Our electoral landscape has totally transformed from the days when FPTP was a true success. It gives people a reason to tactically vote or to not vote at all. With election turnouts at 65%, we do not need to give the disillusioned 35% anymore reason to not turn up.

Politics should offer people real alternatives and people should be able to shape the decisions that affect their lives. The current electoral system means that not every vote counts and thus not every voice has value.

The movement for change relies on a strong, informed and impassioned campaigning. If this sparks a fire in you, I suggest joining the Electoral Reform Society movement to help fix our broken political system.