Electoral system in UK

An Electoral System in UK in need of reform

An issue that won’t go away is the need for reform of the electoral system in UK. Right now significant distortions are being produced such that governments are being formed on small minorities of the votes cast.

Once the UK operated under a “two-party system”, whereby there were two main parties either of whom might win an election by gaining an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons and thus could form a government. There has recently however been a trend towards the growth of small parties and the major parties having a declining share of the vote.In the 2010 general election,

  • The Conservatives had 36.1% of the vote and 307 seats, (47.1% of the total seats)
  • Labour had 29% of the vote and 258 seats (39.7% of seats)
  • Liberal Democrats had 23% of the vote and 57 seats (8.8% of seats)

The bias works against smaller parties. In this case, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, the first peacetime coalition since 1935. Since 2010, smaller parties like the Scottish National Party (SNP) and UKIP have polled much more strongly and there looks to be another “hung” Parliament in 2015.

With political reforms such as the election of a European Parliament and devolution of power to national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Proportional Representation (PR) has been used for these new political entities. Thus with  a growing disproportionality in elections, the rise of alternative models, and the evident stability of the 2015 coalition, the case for electoral reform is getting much stronger.

The First Past the Post system

Voters currently elect their MPs by the First Past the Post system (FPTP), where the candidate with the largest number of votes in a constituency, a certain geographical area, wins the seat. Devolved assemblies and EU elections by contrast work by PR, where the number of members elected are proportional to the votes cast.

Thus, for the UK Parliament, you can have many MPs elected regularly from the same major party since there are large numbers of sympathetic voters concentrated in particular areas, like rural areas of England for Conservative or city for Labour. For a few marginal seats there is massive competition, while for most the  result is fairly certain.

Thus in safe seats, the disconnect between MP and voter can today be pronounced. It’s easier to spend less time in the constituency and more on your second job, since there is perhaps less pressure to maintain a close connection. For the marginal by contrast you might need to work hard at your constituency business, and then you might still also be wise to keep your second career options open since your seat is much less secure. For voters on the other hand, they don’t see any return on their vote if it wasn’t for the winning candidate: there’s no one else to reflect your views.

The increasing case for reform

In previous times, it was argued that Britain needed stable government and the FPTP ensured a two party system and clear majorities for the winner. PR would mean coalitions which were deemed unstable and weak. However since the War many countries in Europe and elsewhere have been stably governed by coalitions and the recent elections in the UK have been electing governments with a pronounced minority of the vote. As we have seen, 2010 gave no party a majority and 2015 looks to do the same.

An additional problem has recently emerged in the rapid rise of the SNP in Scotland after the 2014 Independence referendum. The effect of the swing in support in former Labour city areas, particularly Glasgow, is such that Labour will suffer the disproportionality problem in reverse. If as expected the SNP capture most seats, they will have the same exaggerated representation in Parliament. The pigeons are coming home to roost.

The case for retaining the current system is looking very weak and could be seen to reinforce the MP/voter disconnect. People can now argue that their vote is not reflected in the balance in the House of Commons and in the government that is formed.

So far various attempts at reform have been defeated. One recent attempt at reform was made in 2011, but the Conservatives opposed it and voters in a referendum rejected the relatively small change of the Alternative Vote.

Maldistribution tendency

Another perenial problem is the tendency towards maldistribution in seats. Every  few years, until the 2010 Parliament, the Boundary Commission would recommend a re-distribution of seats to counter population movements making seats unequal in populations. This time due to disagreement amongst parties over other political reforms, particularly the reform of the House of Lords, Labour refused the Conservative wish for another re-distribution and the system is now somewhat out of balance.

It is in any case usally harder for the Conservatives to win a majority of seats than Labour. Labour seats tend to have smaller populations, is less affected by lower turnout in safe seats and tends to lose fewer seats to third parties. Thus the Conservatives need a bigger share of the vote to see the benefit in a larger number of seats. At present a lead of over 6% is required.

Further information

A study of the UK election result of 2010 by the Electoral Reform Society

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