Tag Archives: proportional representation

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.



The death of the coalition experiment

Angela Merkel and David Cameron
Angela Merkel is alleged to have advised David Cameron that in coalitions “the little party gets smashed”. Picture from number10gov via creative commons.

One of the many disappointments about the 2015 General Election is that it seems to demonstrate fairly comprehensively that the British electorate is not keen on coalitions. It also suggests that the strength of LibDem local activism has been overstated.

Up until the exit poll, I would have gone along with @timwig‘s 2013 view that the Libdems wouldn’t collapse. I thought the tribalist anti-Libdem sentiments from many of my lefty friends was typical of a metropolitan bubble, and that it underestimated the strength and importance of local activism. I was expecting them to lose seats and vote share in London and other metropolitan areas where they had perhaps picked up opportunistic votes from Labour in 2010. I was not expecting the complete wipeout in their southwest heartlands.

While there is further geeky number crunching analysis to do, it’s clear that in many former LibDem strongholds, their vote has collapsed and spread to the four winds, rather than go to a specific party; in some of their former constituencies, the Conservatives won despite polling around the same or indeed fewer votes than in 2010.

While I’m not instinctively a LibDem supporter, up until Thursday 8th May 2015 I genuinely believed that they had support because of local activism and connections (A Good Thing IMHO), and also because they were successfully able to present themselves as above party politics and tribalism, one that was able to exert a moderating influence and ensure there was more debate on a number of issues (Also A Good Thing IMHO). I wanted them to be a thoughtful alternative to two-party politics and felt our political system was stronger because of them, and naively thought that a significant part of the electorate might also share that view.

So hence the personal disappointment. But here’s the thing; even if you have nothing but hatred and contempt for the Liberal Democrats, if you believe in greater democracy and accountability, their collapse is bad news for you. Firstly, there is no way proportional representation is going to work without coalition politics. You can’t rally against the idiocy of the first past the post system without accepting that greater representation of smaller parties will lead to coalitions, negotiations and compromises. Secondly, it has completely destroyed the illusion that local activism (in its current form) is important. I think this is the biggest shame of all.