Proportional Representation: Cure or Chaos?

Image: John Mounsey on Pixabay

On the 16th of March 2021, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced plans to switch the electoral system for London Mayoral Elections to First Past the Post. This change would apply not only to the election of London’s Mayor, but elected mayors in nine other combined authorities in England, as well as the election of Police and Crime Commissioners in both England and Wales.

This announcement has been criticised by opposition parties, as well as pressure groups - such as the Electoral Reform Society - who see the adoption of the electoral system used to elect MPs as regressive, believing that the current system – a form of proportional representation - is more democratic and offers greater choice for voters.

The debate on electoral reform is much greater than this announcement and is something that has occupied national politics with increasing ferocity in recent years. First Past the Post, the current system of electing MPs for the national parliament, has come under great criticism and many believe it is better replaced with a form of proportional representation – the opposite of the move Priti Patel plans to make with the London Mayoral election.

To some, the debate between First Past the Post and proportional representation is an age old one. To others, it is one that leaves many questions in need of answering.

What is proportional representation? What are its benefits? Is it truly a better alternative than First Past the Post for national elections? Should it remain as the electoral system for London Mayoral elections?

In answering these questions, a comprehensive understanding of First Past the Post (FPTP) is needed to establish whether there is truly a need for such radical change in the adoption of proportional representation (PR) at a national level, or if FPTP is better suited to become the electoral system in London Mayoral elections. But most importantly, one must understand the various systems that fall under the umbrella term proportional representation- and whether or not any one of them have made a strong enough case to replace FPTP.

First Past the Post – a flawed system

First Past the Post is the electoral system currently used in the United Kingdom’s general elections. The UK is split up into 650 constituencies, all of which use FPTP to elect their local representative. Under this system, the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins the seat. No matter how marginal the victory, all other votes are discarded. Once all of the seats have been won, the party with the most seats will typically form the government.

For a mayoral election, it would work in the same way it does with constituency candidates: the candidate with the most first preference votes wins.

Although a much simpler system than some of the alternatives, FPTP comes with a plethora of disadvantages that campaigners of proportional representation would argue undermine the democratic status of the United Kingdom and outweigh whatever few benefits it carries.

The major disadvantage of using FPTP in London Mayoral Elections is that it would encourage tactical voting. Due to the deeply entrenched two-party system under FPTP, many will tactically vote for the major party they dislike the least (either the Conservatives or the Labour Party) to prevent their vote from being wasted on a party that is unlikely to win their seat. This would result in the effective elimination of smaller party candidates from the race.

The largest disadvantage of FPTP at national level is that it is not proportional. The nature of this ‘winner takes all’ system results in a winner’s bonus, whereby the largest party receives a greater percentage of the seats than they did of the vote share. This is commonplace in general elections and results in governments operating with a plurality of votes, rather than a majority.

The outcome of the 2019 election, for example, saw the forming of a Conservative government with 56% of the seats despite having only won 43% of the votes.

Democracy, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is a system of governance ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. It would be reasonable, therefore, to question the democratic credentials of UK governance when the government does not have a true electoral mandate, having received support of less than 50% of the population.

No prime minister has ever received over 50% of the vote since 1935, with the election of the National Government led by Stanley Baldwin. In other words, for over 80 years, the UK has been governed by a political party that the majority of the population did not vote for. Even Tony Blair, who won the greatest landslide in UK electoral history with 64% of the seats in 1997, received only 43% of the votes.

Due to the system of wasting votes, the number of votes required to elect a member of parliament differs greatly across political parties.

Westminster's voting system is bankrupt. It's time for proportional  representation – Electoral Reform Society

Despite these disadvantages, many take a similar attitude to FPTP as Churchill did to democracy:

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others” – Winston Churchill

For all its flaws, they argue, FPTP is a necessary evil – reducing the risk of political instability is more important than strengthening democracy.

Those that defend FPTP argue that this an unfortunate reality - but one that is better than weak governments reliant on coalitions. However, in recent years, FPTP has achieved the same result.

In 2010, David Cameron was forced to engage in a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to achieve a majority. In 2017, Theresa May was forced to participate in a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, to prevent a hung parliament. Under this agreement, the DUP pledged to support Conservative motions in exchange for government support on their policy priorities. Boris Johnson was forced to hold the fourth election in a decade in 2019, to consolidate his majority.

Additionally, another major benefit of FPTP is that it prevents the election of extremist parties. The danger of proportional representation is that it allows these parties to gain a strong foothold in parliament. Under a truly proportional system, the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) would have become a political force after winning 12.6% of the votes in 2015.  

One could certainly argue that the last decade has seen the deterioration of the relationship between FPTP and effective governance. However, could PR truly offer an alternative, or would it serve to exacerbate the issue?

Proportional representation and its many forms

Proportional representation broadly seeks to reduce the number of wasted votes in elections and bring the percentage of seats won by political parties closer in line with the mandate given by the public in their vote share. In simple terms: percentage of seats equals percentage of votes.

Although not every alternative system used in the United Kingdom is entirely representative, each of them reduces the disparity between the percentage of seats and the percentage of votes obtained by each political party.

Alternative electoral systems have been used in the United Kingdom since 1997, when Tony Blair began the process of devolution that saw the introduction of new parliaments, assemblies, and authorities that had the power to utilise an electoral system of their choice. Additionally, another alternative system was proposed in 2011 by referendum, but rejected by the public.

In total there are 4 main alternatives. However, despite the weaknesses of FPTP, the question remains as to whether any of them have made a compelling enough case to replace FPTP.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Single Transferable Vote is the electoral system used to elect members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. STV is the most proportional alternative system and results in almost no disparity between vote share and seats won. This is a major advantage of STV in that it maximises representation and ensures that the general will of the public is embodied to the greatest possible extent in government.

In an election using STV, constituencies elect a set number of candidates. In Northern Ireland, 5 MPs are elected per constituency to make up a total of 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) across 18 constituencies.

At the ballot box, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference: 1 for their first choice, 2 for their second choice and so on. Although this does give voters the ability to rank several candidates, they are not required to rank all candidates.

To be elected a candidate must reach a quota (a percentage threshold). This quota is calculated based on the number of votes cast and the number of candidates needed to be elected.

Once all the votes have been cast, assuming no one reaches the quota on first preference votes (which is typically the case) the least popular candidate is eliminated, and second preference votes of the dismissed candidates are added. This process continues until the required number of candidates has been elected.

Those that are elected under STV are those with the most support overall, not just those with the most first preference votes. This means that people are more likely to be happy with the governing party, rather than being governed by one they directly opposed.

Additionally, under STV, people can vote for the party they most agree with as tactical voting is not required. Under STV, smaller parties are not discriminated against, nor are any votes wasted, and thus every vote matters.

One major disadvantage of STV is that some believe the use of multi-member constituencies (constituencies with multiple representatives) would erode the relationship between representative and constituent. This is particularly problematic for sparsely populated areas as it would result in massive constituencies that could potentially share very different ideals and have different political desires. This, some argue, would be to the detriment of representative democracy, and representatives would not be able to accurately represent all of their constituents.

Supplementary Vote (SV)

Supplementary Vote is the electoral system currently used in the London Mayoral Elections. SV ballots have two columns where voters can rank their first and second preferences, a shorter number than is offered under STV. In the likely scenario where no candidate wins 50% of 1st preference votes, 2nd preference votes are added.

Like STV, the victor requires a broader foundation of support and must seek the votes of a greater number of people. This is particularly important in London as no candidate has ever received above 50% first preference votes. If FPTP were adopted in its place the same issues of tactical voting and wasted votes would arise.

The simplicity of SV addresses one of the core concerns with STV in that some believe it to be too complicated for the general public to understand. However, it is not as proportional a system.

Alternative Member System (AMS)

Alternative Member System is a hybrid between FPTP and PR that seeks to address some of the weaknesses of proportional representation whilst including a proportional element not present under FPTP.

Voters in the UK use the Additional Member System (AMS) to elect representatives for the Scottish and Welsh Parliament respectively, and the London Assembly.

Upon reaching the ballot, voters are given two ballot papers. On the first ballot, there is a list of candidates who want to be the local Member of Parliament (MP). This is the same as a FPTP vote where the voter will select the candidate they wish to represent them.

On the second ballot paper, voters are presented with a list of parties who want seats in parliament. Each party will publish a list of candidates in advance. A vote for a party is a vote to make more of their list of candidates into MPs.

The first ballot papers are counted first. The candidate with the most votes wins. The second ballot papers are then counted. Those counting look at how many seats a party won on the first ballot paper. They then add ‘additional members’ from the party lists to make parliament match how the country voted.

So, if a party has 5 MPs from the constituencies, and its fair share is 8, then 3 candidates from its list become MPs. This helps to address one of the core concerns with most forms of PR, in that it would erode the link between constituent and MP.

However, one of the major flaws of AMS is that it maintains safe seats. These are seats that are unlikely to change party, and thus, require people to vote tactically or vote for parties with little chance of success.

Alternative Vote (AV)

Alternative Vote was offered as a replacement to FPTP in the 2011 referendum introduced under David Cameron’s government as a clause in his coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

AV works in a very similar way to STV. However, the winning candidate is not expected to surpass a quota, but to surpass 50% of the total votes.

One benefit of AV, as opposed to STV, is it maintains what FPTP supporters perceive to be a vitally important representative-constituency link. Unlike STV, which uses multi-member constituencies, AV still has one representative per constituency.

Cure or Chaos?

It is clear that proportional representation has made a strong case for the replacement of First Past the Post and remaining as the electoral system in London Mayoral elections. FPTP is an inherently problematic system, built on the notion of sustaining the two-party system whilst suppressing smaller parties in favour of strong governance.

Although there are legitimate concerns about political instability, in the twenty-first century we must strive for a more mature politics where cross-party consensus can be embraced, rather than feared. Proportional representation allows opportunity for compromise, not conflict, where political parties seek what is best for all people, not the fraction that voted for them. There is a rich history of proportional representation, particularly in Europe, that shows more instances than not of proportional representation evoking more fruitful and effective governance.

To those that fear the eruption of radical politics, although it is true to say that they benefit under proportional systems as their votes are translated into seats, the point of concern is one that is often exaggerated. Not only is it possible to take preventative measures by providing thresholds that a party must surpass (for example, having to receive 5% of the votes to claim your seats), but having them in parliament may not be as dangerous as some fear. Incorporation of fringe parties can have a moderating and co-opting effect which prevents further radicalisation and alienation. This effect would make them less likely to adopt undesirable methods and more likely to de-radicalise in the pursuit of greater support.

For now, without the support of the majority party in parliament, it is clear that campaigners for proportional representation will have an uphill battle to climb: any legislation they propose will likely be blocked by Conservative MPs.

But with a new generation of young people championing the pursuit of greater democracy, pressure groups such as Make Votes Matter growing in numbers and influence, and the adoption of PR by the Labour Party potentially on the horizon, proportional representation certainly does have a chance of becoming a reality - and a strong one at that.