Electoral Reform – Why We Need It

  So, there we are. European Parliament elections done and dusted for another five years. The results will start to come in Sunday night, once the other EU member states are done voting, and we should know the makeup of the Parliament in its entirety by Monday evening. Then comes the wrangling within the EU hierarchy over who gets to be President of the Commission – itself a very important post, having power over 28 countries and carrying a paycheque larger than Barack Obama’s – but as far as we, the citizens of the Union, are concerned , it’s all over.

The Problems with First-Past-the-Post

  Now, the more astute amongst you may have noticed that on that rather large ballot paper were the names of rather more candidates than at most elections. That’s because the European Parliament operates under a different voting system to our own – they use Closed Party List (CPL), as opposed to the First-Past-the-Post (FPtP) system which is used for Westminster. This is a far more proportional system, producing a Parliament which is a much better representative of votes cast. Observe the graphs below:

  These two show the differences between votes cast in the 2010 General Election and the seats in the House of Commons which those votes translated into. This election took place using FPtP, and as you can see, the two are pretty different. 

  The standout point at first glance is the fact that UKIP and the BNP, having claimed 6% of the vote between them – nearly 1.5 million votes – won no seats at all. Now, I’m a fan of neither party, but surely it cannot be right that the views of so many people are simply discounted in this way by the electoral system?

  The second point to note is that the percentages of seats won by the biggest parties have been artificially inflated by the system – the Conservatives by 10.3% and Labour by 10.7%. This is a common feature of FPtP, which always favours these two parties above all others, and generally Labour slightly more than the Tories. 

  The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have suffered a devastating cut of 14.2% to their own percentage – had this not been the case, the Lib Dems would have had the option of going into Coalition with Labour instead of the Tories, changing the entire makeup of government. The Greens also took a hit of 0.8% – four-fifths of their total vote.

  It should be pretty obvious that this system is undemocratic – it distorts the wishes of the electorate and is heavily biased towards the two largest parties – who also happen to be the most similar in terms of policy. Essentially, FPtP deprives us of our choice of representatives and thus of government. 

Why Does This Happen?

  The reason these distortions occur is because in each of the 650 constituencies for the Westminster Parliament, whichever candidate wins a plurality of votes – i.e. more than anyone else – wins the seat. This means that it is perfectly possible for an MP to be elected on the basis of less than half, or even less than a third, of the vote. Not only does this system waste the votes of anyone who votes for a candidate other than the victor, it also wastes any ‘excess’ votes for the winner – i.e. all votes over and above the number required to win the seat (one more than the closest rival).

  Let’s take an example – my own constituency of Aldershot. The seat is a safe Tory seat, held by Sir Gerald Howarth since 1997. In 2010, the results were as follows:

  • Conservatives:                                  46.7%
  • Liberal Democrats:                          34.4%
  • Labour:                                              12.1%
  • UKIP:                                                    4.5%
  • English Independence Party:             1.8%
  • Christian Party:                                    0.5%
                                          [SOURCE: BBC NEWS}
  As you can see, I live in a pretty right-wing constituency, but that’s beside the point. The Tories beat the Lib Dems by a healthy majority of 12.3%. Therefore, 12.2999’% of those Tory votes weren’t actually needed to win the seat – we’ll call it 12.3% for simplicity’s sake – and were thus wasted. Similarly, all the votes for the parties which did not win the seat had no effect on the overall balance of power in the House of Commons – they were wasted too. This brings the total proportion of wasted votes to 66.6% – two thirds, in other words. 
  That means, in effect, that two thirds of the 45,843 voters who turned out to vote in Aldershot constituency in 2010 need not have bothered – the result would have been the same without them. No wonder, then, that 36.5% of the electorate in that constituency didn’t bother to turn out – they understandably felt that they wouldn’t make a difference. A shame, because if they HAD turned out then they would have been able to tip the balance away from the Tories quite easily – which is why apathy is NEVER an option for protest – but you can see the reasoning.
  When magnified to a national level, it transpired that 71.2% of all votes in 2010 were wasted in this way – nearly three-quarters. No wonder a third of voters nationwide don’t bother to vote. In short, First-Past-the-Post is broken to the core. 
Closed Party List – What Is It?
  Closed Party List works in a very different way. Instead of lots of small constituencies, there are a smaller number of larger ones which return multiple members each – between three and ten apiece in the European elections. Seats are allocated within each constituency in proportion with the number of votes received by each party (see this article for an example of this in action). Parties each propose lists of candidates, which are ranked in order, and those candidates fill the party’s seats in the order they appear on the ballot paper – i.e. if the Tories win six seats in the South-East, the first six candidates on the Tory list for the South-East will become MEPs. 

  CPL is a far more proportional system than FPtP, of that there is no doubt. These graphs, of the 2009 European Parliament election, show a much closer match between voting and seats won. The differentials in the vast majority of cases have been cut to within a few percentage points, meaning UKIP were able to claim second place – a feat which would be impossible at a Westminster election. 

  The one obvious discrepancy is the Tory party – a 10.2% gap between votes and seats is only 0.1% less than the gap in 2010, after all. At first glance, that looks to be a major problem – but it isn’t, in fact. The reason why is quite simple, and it has to do with numbers of seats.
  At a basic level, there are a lot less MEPs than MPs – 73 for the whole of the UK, as opposed to 650. As seats are allocated proportionately, in a ten-member constituency such as the South-East of England, 10% of the vote is needed for each seat – but if there are ‘spare’ seats left over at the end of this process, they are distributed amongst the parties in order of how much of the next 10% they have. So, the Tories – who won 34% of the vote in the South-East – were given 3 MEPs in the initial distribution, and then a fourth in the ‘second round’ – essentially a free 6% of the vote.

  However, the South-East has rather more than 10 Westminster MPs – 84, to be exact. Therefore, if CPL were used for the Westminster elections, only 1.2% of the vote would be needed for each seat. This would significantly reduce the number of ‘spare seats’, and would bring the differentials in the two percentages down to a very minute level indeed. Therefore, this system – already far more proportional than FPtP when used at a European level – would become even more so.


  Despite the obvious benefits in terms of proportionality, and therefore for the health of our democracy, there have been some criticisms of the CPL system put forward. The main ones are:

  • Coalitions: CPL, being a form of Proportional Representation (PR), would create a House of Commons far more split between the parties. To form a majority government under this system, a party would have to win an absolute majority of the vote – 50.1%+ – something which has not happened since the Conservatives did it in 1931 (and they formed a coalition anyway, due to the Great Depression). However, it is arguable as to whether this is necessarily a bad thing – coalitions are unusual in the UK, but par for the course in most EU countries, and are better representations of the views of the electorate than single-party governments
  • Representative Disconnect: The large numbers of representatives CPL would create for each constituency would likely lead to a disconnect between MPs and voters – people would not know who to go to with their problems. An obvious way to fix this problem would be to simply assign each proportionally elected MP to a constituency – since no MP in the country, through a combination of split votes and poor turnout, was actually voted in by a majority of their constituents in 2010, the oft-quoted argument that this would mean having an MP one did not vote for does not hold
  • Confusion: The ballot paper under CPL is simply more confusing than under FPtP, and this could theoretically lead to more spoilt ballots. However, the problem is nowhere near as acute with CPL as with other PR systems such as STV (used for the Northern Ireland Assembley elections)
  Overall, I think it is clear that CPL is a far better, more democratic electoral system than FPtP. Implementing it for Westminster elections would vastly improve the strength of our representative democracy and significantly cut voter apathy, as people begin to realise that their vote really does count under CPL. Less confusing and more proportional than other PR systems, the only real concern is the propensity to create coalitions – but then, I do not personally think that a bad thing; imagine, if you can bring yourself to do so, a UK which had had not a Coalition Government but a pure Tory government for the last four years.
  I shudder to think.

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