What is the Best System for elections in the UK?

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18th May 2020 Politics Reference this

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The United Kingdom’s electoral system, called First Past the Post or abbreviated to FPTP, has long been thought of as disproportionate and unfair. However, there are numerous different electoral systems throughout the world that other countries use to elect their National Legislature. These include the Republic of Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV), Australia’s Alternative Vote System (AV) which is also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), the Dutch Proportional Representation System (PR)[1] and the German Mixed-Member Proportional System (MMP)[2]. These have all been advocated as alternatives to the FPTP electoral system. Smaller parties have often attempted to make the UK adopt proportional systems such as Single Transferable Vote or Proportional Representation. Many opponents say that proportional representation may led to coalition or minority governments becoming the political norm. This is evident in Denmark as ‘Minority government is the norm in Denmark; 31 of 35 governments’ between 1945-2010 were minority.’(Oireachtas, 2016)

 The FPTP system that UK uses means that the country is segmented into several hundred constituencies[3] all of which elect one member to the House of Commons. Under the FPTP system the candidate who receives the highest amount of votes wins however, this may not always be a majority of the votes. This could mean that potentially a candidate who receives less than 40 percent of the vote could win the seat as long the other votes are split. (Grey, The Problems with First Past the Post Voting Explained, 2011) If this situation is replicated in enough seats this could mean that a potential government could win a landslide amount of seats without a majority of the votes. This was shown when Labour party under Tony Blair won 418 out of the 659 seats available with only 43.2 per cent of the vote. However, although the system does allow for minority rule, it means that every citizen has a member of parliament that represents them locally and they can come to in a constituency surgery. The FPTP system is also a simple system to count and does not require any calculations or votes to be transferred and therefore can be conducted in only one round of counting or voting. It also mostly allows for majority governments meaning that there is little instability due to coalition or minority governments that are often caused by proportional representation system. Alternatives to the current FPTP are discussed in the next section.

Figure :UK General Election Map from 2017

 The Single Transferable Vote system that the Republic of Ireland uses has been considered to be a possible alternative to the current FPTP system. It is currently used in some elections in the UK such as Assembly and Local elections in Northern Ireland and Local Elections in Scotland. With the PR-STV system is that the voter ranks all the candidates by preference. Then all the first preference votes are counted then added together and then divided by the amount seats available plus one. That number plus one is the quota of votes required to get over, to be elected. The first round of counting takes place then if a candidate receives over the quota, they are elected. Their surplus votes are then distributed among their second preference votes. However, if in the first round of counting, no candidate has received higher than the quota, then the candidate with the lowest amount of votes is eliminated and their votes are distributed. This continues until all the seats have been taken up. (Grey, 2014) With this system every citizen will have a representative in their legislature that they feel comfortable having a meeting with. It also has the advantage of being a semi-proportional system where the results are relatively proportional however does not always lead to constant coalitions. However, some would say that the system of preferences could be too complicated for voters to understand and the fact that counting takes place over multiple rounds could complicated. For instance, during the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly Election in the constituency of South Antrim where there were 26 candidates vying for 10 seats in the Assembly; it required 23 counts across two days. (EONI, 1982)

 However, if single-member constituencies are preferred then the Alternative Vote system would be the best alternative to the FPTP in the UK. The system requires voters to rank all the candidates in order of preference. When counting commences all the first preference votes are counted, the quota is the total amount of votes divided by two. If no one reaches the 50 percent threshold on the first round of counting, then the last placed candidate is eliminated and their votes are distributed based on the voter’s second preferences. This is repeated until a candidate reaches the threshold. (Grey, 2011) The benefits of this is that an unexpected third party could win the seat. However alternatively it could enforce a two-party stranglehold on politics as every voter would put the ‘lesser of two evils’ as their preferred choice would be one of the two major parties. In fact, Australia, which uses AV, did not a have a third party from 1949 to 2010. However, it would be useful for keeping the system of one-party majorities that we currently have. However, during the 2011 AV referendum many smaller parties only supported the system because they believed that it would be a way to reach their eventual goal of full proportional representation or STV and although this referendum did not pass, many politicians saw it as a rejection of electoral reform and not of AV itself which is simply not true.

Figure :Table showing how the D’Hondt method works

 If a system which only focuses on proportionality is preferred then the Dutch System of pure proportional representation where there is one national constituency where the quota for gaining a seat is the total amount of votes divided by the amount of seats to be elected, in the Netherlands this 150. The party has a list of candidates which it submits to the Electoral Commission. The person at the top of this list would be the prime ministerial candidate. However, the amount of seats in the House of Commons is 650 meaning that parties that receive only 0.154[4] percent would gain a seat. (Politics B. S., 2017) This means that smaller parties would begin to hold the balance of power however if required a threshold could be put into place, which many countries have done. Electoral thresholds have a large spread ranging from 0.67 percent in the Netherlands to 10 percent in Turkey. However, the system gives more power to the political parties as they have to decide the order of candidates and they can purposely disadvantage newer candidates or the so-called ‘old guard’ of the party. Furthermore, this system could lead more coalitions and longer government formation times such as in the Netherlands where ‘Dutch parties agree coalition government after 208 days’. (Henley, 2017) If a parliament lasts only four to five years, a significant amount of the Parliament would be taken up by the government formation or until a consensus is reached. Another problem with this system is that it takes away the power of the regional parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru and would leave Northern Ireland much less represented than it currently is and would leave them feel marginalised especially with their current situation.

 On the contrary, there is a system which is broadly proportional and does allow for local representation which is called the Mixed-Member-Proportional system, which is used in Germany. Firstly, the country is split into a number of constituencies (approximately half of the amount of seats available). During the counting process, the amount of seats each party receives is calculated proportionally to the percentage of the popular vote. Then seats are first filled by the candidates who won their constituencies. Then the remaining seats are taken by the candidates from the party’s list. (Grey, 2011) The German system also allows for overhang and levelling seats. An overhang seat is required when someone is elected in a constituency but their party does not receive enough votes to gain that seat proportionally the amount of seats in the Parliament are increased by one. This happens in every instance that such a situation occurs. However, this result in the parliament not being proportional so levelling seats are added for the other parties to compensate for disproportionality. These seats can add up especially during the last German Federal Election where 111 seats were added on to the total making a usually 598 member Bundestag[5] into a 709 member Bundestag. (Politics B. , 2017) The advantage of this system is that it allows party leaders who have not been elected in their constituency to be elected on their party list. However, it also leads to endless coalitions and gives smaller parties the balance of power.

Figure :Results of the German Election 2017

 In conclusion, what I propose is a mix of the Alternative Vote and Proportional Representation where 65 percent is elected through single member constituencies through AV and 35 percent through PR. This ensures that smaller parties a represented in Parliament while not giving them the balance of power. It also means that the large coalition governments of four or five parties will not happen as the two larger parties will either gain a majority or be able to go into coalition with one smaller party to gain a majority.

Bibliography

  • EONI, E. O. (1982). 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly Election Results Record. From Elections Office for Northern Ireland Website: http://www.eoni.org.uk/getmedia/5e4fb91e-efd0-4f27-b6a5-92e88c2206b2/ni_assembly_election_results_1982
  • Grey, C. (2011, September 2011). Mixed-Member Proportional Representation Explained. From Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT0I-sdoSXU&list=PL7679C7ACE93A5638&index=4
  • Grey, C. (2011, April 7). The Alternative Vote Explained. From Youtube: https://youtu.be/3Y3jE3B8HsE
  • Grey, C. (2011, March 9). The Problems with First Past the Post Voting Explained. From Youtube: https://youtu.be/s7tWHJfhiyo
  • Grey, C. (2014, October 22). Politics in the Animal Kingdom: Single Transferable Vote. From Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8XOZJkozfI&list=PL7679C7ACE93A5638&index=6&t=0s
  • Henley, J. (2017, October 2017). Dutch parties agree coalition government after a record 208 days. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/09/dutch-politicians-ready-form-government-election-coalition
  • Oireachtas, H. o. (2016, October 4). L&RS Note, Minority governments and parliament. From Oireachtas Library and Research Service: https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/libraryResearch/2016/2016-10-04_minority-governments-and-parliament_en.pdf
  • Politics, B. (2017, August 23). How Germany Votes: Everything You Need to Know. From Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcojNY7pc00
  • Politics, B. S. (2017, March 3). Dutch Electoral System Explained – How the Tweede Kamer is elected. From Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUdkJhT6vXs

[1] I will be using the D’Hondt method for the calculation of seats like the Dutch do.

[2] I will be using the D’Hondt method even though the Germans use the Sainte-Lague method for calculating seats.

[3] Ridings in Canada, Divisions in Australia, Congressional Districts in the United States.

[4]100 divided by 650 (rounded to three significant figures)

[5] German Parliament

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