Why we need proportional representation (and why it won’t happen)

This election in particular has highlighted the silliness of our current first past the post (FPTP) system, whereby the results of 650 individual elections are combined to form a government which may or may not represent the views of the people.

If this graph doesn’t do it for you;

Proportional Representation Graph

…then perhaps numbers will:

  • the Labour party increased its share of the vote by 1.5%, the Conservatives increased by 0.8%. This translated into Labour losing 26 seats while the Conservatives gained 24
  • the Scottish Nationalist Party got 56 seats with less than 1.5m voters; UKIP got 1 seat with 3.8m voters

How can this be defended as democratic? The strongest arguments in favour of FPTP tend to focus on the link between the local constituency and its MP. And yet time after time we hear that people do not feel they know their local MP or that their local MP does not represent them. (Eg see the ever-fascinating but depressing Hansard Audit of Political Engagement which in 2015 concluded that 28% of people did not know which political party their MP belonged to.) Furthermore, it is perfectly possible to have a voting system that combines an element of locality with proportional representation (PR) principles – both the Alternative Vote system proposed in 2011 and the Single Transferable Vote still use geographical boundaries, just in different ways.

Another argument in favour of FPTP is that it is simple – but I could name at least two acquaintances of mine who confess to not understanding how it works. Not because they didn’t get the principle, but because all the discussions and slanging matches about likely coalitions before the 2015 General Election confused this supposedly simple system. “How can my vote for party X mean that party Y gets in?” said one.

However, the argument that really, really gets my goat is that FPTP protects from extremism. Several commentators have pointed to the success of UKIP in the 2015 General Election as a reason for why we should stick with nice, safe FPTP. This firstly assumes that everyone would vote the same way under a PR system, when in reality we know that lots of tactical voting happens under FPTP. Secondly, and more importantly, this is a rejection of democratic principles. Yes, extremists may get elected; it is up to us progressives to argue convincingly as to why their views are wrong, not hide behind a constitutional safety blanket.

However, I’m not optimistic about us getting electoral reform any time soon. It failed decisively in 2011 (possibly due to misleading campaigning, but it was still a low turn out and a convincing defeat). It still benefits the two biggest parties the most, and with a conservative majority elected who have done very well out of FPTP it is hard to see this changing in the next parliamentary term. One can hope that Labour’s drubbing in Scotland will finally convince them of the need for proportional representation and that any future campaigns may have more concrete support from them.

In the meantime have a look at the Electoral Reform website, support them and spread the word.



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