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Why Britain’s Electoral System is Inadequate – Tom Brooks

January 12, 2011

Britain’s parliament is often referred to as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, but the way we elect MPs urgently needs to be reformed. The main problem with the current first past the post (FPTP) system is that it stifles plurality and leaves wasted votes in every constituency.

Under FPTP, the candidate with the most votes wins the constituency, and all votes for the third and lower-placed candidates are effectively rendered redundant. It also stifles political plurality and hugely favours larger parties; at the last election Labour and Conservatives received 67.6 per cent of the national vote (their lowest ever), but won 86 per cent of the seats. This system limits choice and alienates voters. Indeed, a recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the 2010 election was decided in only 111 constituencies by 460,000 voters, representing just 1.6 per cent of the electorate.

Because of its shortcomings, FPTP encourages widespread tactical voting, where votes are cast for a second preference in order to prevent an even less desirable candidate from winning. In this way, the current system often prevents the electorate from expressing their true preferences, or worse, deters them from voting at all.

FPTP is under strain more than ever before. Traditionally, the fact that it often delivers big majorities has been used in its defence, as this is seen as conducive to strong government. However, the trend towards single party majority governments is declining; as already stated, the two main parties gained their lowest ever share of the popular vote, and the fact that no party achieved a majority largely vitiates this defence. Having said this, the relatively smooth cooperation of the coalition thus far dispels many of the fears that coalitions cannot provide effective government.

Finally, under FPTP, candidates require fewer than half of the votes in their constituency to win. In the 1950s, 86 per cent of MPs received over 50 per cent of the local vote, but by the last election only one third received such support. This is another example of the decline of the two party system, and suggests that parliament is failing to reflect the changing voting habits of the electorate.

In this light, the system needs reform, which is long overdue. The last major change to our voting system occurred in 1969, when the minimum age for voting was lowered from 21 to 18. This did not change how votes are cast, however, and we are effectively using a 19th Century system.

By contrast, the proposed Alternative Vote (AV) system gives voters more ability to express their views. Even if their ideal candidate comes last, their vote is transferred to their second favourite choice. This removes the need to vote tactically, and allows the electorate to communicate its true preferences. By giving voters more influence, it will encourage greater participation; criticisms that this will be hindered by complicating the voting process are highly patronising – as AV campaigners point out, the system is “as easy as 1,2,3”.

It is important to note that AV is not a perfect system, and that the Jenkins Commission was particularly critical of it. It is not purely proportional like, say, the Additional Member System (AMS), and does not fully remove the issue of wasted votes. This is because it retains the constituency model, where all MPs are directly accountable to an identifiable group of voters. In its favour, AV still makes it difficult for extreme candidates to win seats.

Gordon Brown proposed the introduction of AV in February last year, but it was Nick Clegg and the coalition that legislated for a referendum to be held on 5th May 2011. Labour MPs are divided: 114 MPs oppose it but the rest, including the leader Ed Milliband, support it. This seems to be either part of Labour’s broader strategy of attempting to block all of the coalition’s policies, or a cynical act of self-interest to maintain a system that generally favours their party.

There is also disquiet amongst the Conservative Party about the proposed reforms. Crucially, however, the fate of AV will be decided by the May 5th referendum, so the final decision lies with the electorate rather than within Westminster. A recent YouGov poll suggests that those who understand AV generally support it, so focus for the ‘yes’ campaign must shift to educating the public about the pros and cons of AV.

The proposed electoral reform will make government more accountable and will empower voters. This is crucial to rebuilding trust in the political process. The coalition is illustrating that compromise, not confrontation, can be a valid and effective means of governance.

Thomas Brooks  is Research Intern at CentreForum.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 10:52 pm

    Generally a very thoughtful and useful artcle, although I am surprised that “the liberal think tank” mentioned AMS as an example of PR instead of the far superior STV, which provides voters with much greater freedom of choice.

    It’s a good point that, although the No camp claim that 114 Labour MPs oppose AV (even though they were all elected on a manifesto that supported it and they elected Ed Milliband by a form of it), the rest support it. In fact, not even 114 oppose AV. At least 3 of the 114 claimed by the No camp have said they were wrongly quoted.

    It is absolutely right that “those who understand AV generally support it”. That is also what my colleagues and I have found on the streets. It follows then that ” focus for the ‘yes’ campaign must shift to educating the public about the pros and cons of AV.”

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