Some thoughts on Proportional Representation

Following the 2015 general election there has been an incredible amount of support for and discussion about Proportional Representation.  I am 26 years old and I have been a proponent of Proportional representation for half of my life.  I first began to support the concept of PR for UK elections after studying different electoral systems during a Modern Studies class.   Even at the age of 13 it was clear to me that the First-past-the-Post electoral system that we use to elect people to the House of Commons does not work for our modern politics.

The system hasn’t always been broken; it worked when the two main parties attracted 95% of the votes cast by the electorate.  As time has marched on our politics has changed.  The political landscape is vastly different to how it looked in the late 1800s and early 1900s and as a consequence the electoral system no longer functions in a way that is appropriate.

The current Government in the UK consists of a single party which holds a (slim) majority of seats in the House of Commons.  In percentage terms, the Conservative Party has 50.9% of the seats having achieved only 36.9% of votes cast nationally.  It is over-represented in the commons by approximately 90 seats on a proportional votes to seats basis.

The Conservative Party is not the only party that is over-represented in the current House of Commons: the Labour Party, DUP and the Scottish National party are over-represented.  The Labour Party has 35.7% of the seats with 30.4% of the votes cast nationally; it is over-represented by about 31 seats on a proportaional votes to seats basis.  The Scottish National Party has 8.6% of the seats in the Commons having achieved 4.7% of the votes cast nationally (given that the SNP had candidates standing only in Scotland the figures are slightly misleading.  Looking only at the votes cast in Scotland for the seats allocated to Scottish constituencies it has 95% of the seats on 50% of the votes cast).  The SNP is over-represented in the House of Commons by about 30 seats on a proportional votes to seas basis.  The DUP has 1.2% of the seats available in the Commons with 0.6% of the votes cast nationally (like the SNP, it did not have candidates standing in all constituencies; it’s only candidates were in Northern Ireland and has 44.4% of the seats allocated to Northern Irish Constituencies with 25.7% of the votes cast in Northern Ireland) and is over-represented by about 3 seats.

If some parties are over-represented it follows that some must be under-represented; the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP are all under-represented.  The Liberal Democrats have 1.2% of the seats with 7.9% of the votes cast nationally.  They are under-represented by about 42 seats.  As for the Green Party they have 0.2% of the seats in the Commons with 3.8% of the votes cast nationally and are under-represented by about 22 seats.  UKIP also have 0.2% of the seats in the Commons with 12.6% of the votes cast nationally; they are under-represented by about 81 seats.  There are other parties who are under-represented in the Commons based on the votes that were cast, but for the sake of brevity I will not set them out in detail.  The parties are: Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein (who by convention don’t take up their seats in the Commons), the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party.  The only party whose representation under FPTP is what it would have been under a PR system is the SDLP.

You will notice that where I have stated by how many seats a party is over-represented or under-represented I have qualified it with “about”; I have done so because had the election been run using a PR system rather than FPTP it will likely have changed the way some people voted (and quite possibly in significant enough numbers to affect the seat distribution).  There will have inevitably been a great deal of tactical voting in this election; FPTP encourages tactical voting, especially in seats that are considered to be ‘marginal’.  In seats that are marginal, people who know their preferred candidate has little chance of being elected will often vote tactically; that is to say they will vote for the person most likely to defeat the candidate that they least want to win.  So, in a Labour-Tory marginal seat someone who might naturally prefer the Liberal Democrats may well recognise that the Lib Dem candidate is highly unlikely to win.  They may absolutely not want the Labour candidate to win and so vote Conservative because they are the candidate most likely to defeat the Labour candidate.

It is impossible to take account of tactical voting with any degree of certainty when modelling a PR based Parliament on votes cast under the FPTP system.  There are also a multitude of different PR systems; some of which it is not possible to translate FPTP results into because they use a preferential voting method (i.e. you rank as many or as few of the candidates/parties standing in the order that you prefer them).

I may be a proponent of PR, but I do recognise it is not perfect either; there is no such thing as the perfect system.  There are trade-offs to be made and which system you favour depends on what it is you value and what it is you hope you achieve by introducing PR.  For example, if you’re more interested in getting as close to a representative Parliament as possible and are not fussed about the ‘local link’ between the elected representative and the constituency; then a system based on a party list is likely to take your fancy.  However, if you favour keeping the local-link despite that resulting in an ever so slightly less representative Parliament (but still far more representative than FPTP), then something like the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system is probably going to get your support.

Personally, I favour STV because I would prefer to keep the ‘local link’ over having a totally representative Parliament.  However, I recognise that such a system might not best serve the country.  Looking at it objectively a list system is probably more appropriate and that’s simply because I think, objectively, the local link has already largely been lost.  There are a few exceptions, but if you ask a representative sample in each constituency who they voted for you are most likely to get either the name of the party or the name of the party leader as opposed to the name of the candidate that actually appeared on the ballot paper.  That’s because in reality the majority of people vote for a party irrespective of the candidate.

Having long been a convert to the PR cause I am glad to see that more people appear to be coming round to the idea that PR is better in our modern politics.  I did vote for AV in 2011, but I also know that a lot of pro-reform people voted no.  I understand why they did so, AV was a false option; it’s not a PR system.  While it does deal with many of the issues with FPTP in the our modern political world, it does not result in a proportionate parliament; it doesn’t even deliver an a parliament that is approximately proportional.  I vote for it because despite its flaws it was progress, a move in the right direction.  The referendum in 2011 was lost, and clearly so.  However, that does not (nor should it) preclude reform.  Nor does it mean that there isn’t a huge level of support for a PR system.

I will continue to fight for, campaign for and support electoral reform to bring a more proportional electoral system for elections to the UK Parliament.

The Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy currently have a petition running in support of PR; if you’ve not already signed it and support the concept of a PR voting system in the UK then please consider signing it.  The Petition can be found here.

One thought on “Some thoughts on Proportional Representation

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