Fixing Democracy - How We Vote

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

In this series of articles I will aim to pick apart and suggest alternatives to the current democratic tools used in the UK’s democracy. The aim is to show how it’s not just our politicians that are broken, but the system that they operate in. Today’s topic is voting systems. The UK currently uses a number of different voting systems for different elections. We will be focusing on the most problematic system which is used for the most important elections: “first past the post” which is used for general elections.

The FPTP voting system separates the UK into 650 (soon to be 600) constituencies in which everyone votes for a single candidate (usually a representative of a political party) and whoever gets the most votes within their constituency becomes an MP. Each of these MPs sits in parliament and votes on legislation, and whichever political party can obtain a majority (over 50%) in the House of Commons gets to form the government – with their leader becoming the Prime Minister.

Before we delve into the many problems with this voting system, we should begin by considering its advantages. First and foremost, it’s incredibly easily understandable. Elections must cater to all levels of political education in the public and it’s very unlikely that someone could be confused with casting their vote or how their vote affects the result. Secondly, it allows elections to be fought on a local level. FPTP ensures that each area has a direct representative advocating for the interest of their community and your local MP can also provide individuals with someone to turn to for support. The voting system we use not only provides a local representative to each constituency, but it encourages them to work on a local level and stay connected with the community to ensure they get voted in the next time.

The Problems Caused by FPTP

So in what ways does this incredibly simple system cause problems? Firstly, it wastes most of the population’s votes. Most seats are won with the plurality of votes rather than the majority – meaning more votes than anyone else rather than over 50% of the vote – and every vote for a candidate that doesn’t win is essentially disregarded. For example, (using fake party names to take the political issues out of it), if in every constituency the Orange Party got 49% of the vote and the Purple Party got 51% of the vote, the result would be that the Orange Party wouldn’t win a single seat. This means that 49% of people may as well not have voted because their vote counted for nothing. This is an extreme example but shows the problem with FPTP. The system leads to constituencies referred to as “safe seats”. Safe seats are constituencies that have voted for the same party for so long that it is essentially assumed that the party will win. In the south there are a significant number of conservative safe seats and in the north a significant number of labour safe seats. It is estimated that there is atleast over 250 safe seats in the UK with the Electoral Reform Society accurately predicting 368 seats before the 2015 general election. If you believe your area is guaranteed to elect a certain candidate, no matter what you vote, and that if you don’t vote for the winning candidate, your vote is essentially thrown in the bin – what incentive do you have to engage in our political system?

Looking at the overall national picture there is also issues of distinct lack of proportionality. FPTP has what is known as an inbuilt “winner’s bonus” meaning which ever parties win the most votes will get an over proportionate share of the seats. This is said to guarantee strong governments and avoid chaotic coalitions, but this has failed to take place. However, in recent years this has failed to take place anyway. For example in the 2015 general election, the United Kingdom Independence Party managed to gain around 1 in 7 of all votes nationally, yet failed to obtain any seats. In the 2017 general election, there was only a 2% difference in vote share between the vote share of the Conservatives and Labour and yet the Conservatives won 55 more seats. The effect of these results is that smaller parties suffer, and the country’s voice is not accurately reflected in Parliament.

The final issue we shall examine is tactical voting. Tactical voting is the idea that there tends to be two candidates in a constituency that are more likely to win than anyone else. This means that if you particularly hate the candidate for the Orange party, then instead of voting for your actual preference - the Beige Party - you will instead vote for the Purple Party as they are more likely to prevent the Orange party from taking your seat. This is a problem because people are essentially voting for the best of the two worst, rather than who they would prefer to see in power. This can only be perceived as a failure of our democratic system.

One of the ways that the failures of the FPTP voting system can be seen to be illustrated is through the two main political parties. The Conservatives and Labour do incredibly well under this system due to things such as the winner’s bonus and tactical voting. The system prevents smaller parties gaining momentum and rising to power. Whatever your thoughts on the policies of the Conservative and Labour party, the idea that a new party which deeply appeals to your personal values would struggle to rise to power, not through the credibility of their views, but because of the electoral system, should be incredibly disturbing to you.

It’s also caused a great deal of problems for the two main political parties themselves. Due to the fact they wish to remain the largest parties to remain electorally viable, there are significant splits in the parties that cause a huge amount of problems. As we’ve seen in the last few years the Conservative Party is split dramatically between Eurosceptics and Europhiles which has caused real issue for the leadership of the party as they are essentially leading two groups of people which fundamentally don’t agree. In the Labour party, there is also a clear split between those who prefer Tony Blair’s more centrist economic policies as opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing politics. In a better democratic system these parties would be able to separate in two without concerns about splitting the vote and not receiving their fair share of votes. Under a system like this, the parties could unite to form a government but in the form of coalition where there would be a clear agreement between the participating parties as to which of each’s policies are implemented. This would allow for a more open disagreement, rather than the country being led by parties which under the surface are divided and fractured beyond repair.

Criticism of our system is all well and good, but in this series of articles I am not merely attempting to criticise, I would like to make suggestions as to an alternative. If criticism is to mean anything, then it must pave the way for a new way forward. So which voting system should we use for the UK’s general elections instead of FPTP to help fix the UK’s democracy?

An Alternative to FPTP

The UK uses a number of proportional voting systems which are far superior to our current choice but the most suitable to replace FPTP is called Additional Members System (also referred to as mixed-member proportional representation in other countries). On the voter side of things, each citizen votes for both their preferred candidate for their local area and their preferred national party. This gives the voter more flexibility in expressing their opinions and allows for things such as “splitting the ticket” where you vote for you a candidate from a different party to the other half of your vote. Half of all the MPs are elected in a similar war to first past the post. The country is separated into constituencies and whoever gets the most votes within that constituency becomes their local MP. This is determined by looking only at the votes for representatives. Following this the other half of MPs are determined using a proportional system from the party vote - this balances out the negative effects of the winner’s bonus and disportionate results.

Under this system all votes would count for something and people can be more flexible in the way they vote. It maintains the few advantages of the first past the post system - such as simplicity and local representation - by allowing the candidate vote to be fought on a more local level. However the system also appreciates the wider picture and the fact that elections are fought on a wider scale; in our modern society we are voting for a government just as much as we are our local MP and therefore the way we vote needs to reflect this. This system also allows for the emergence of smaller parties, meaning voters will have more options and won’t be limited to reductive tactical voting. This is the system we need to begin to fix the UK’s democracy and would have knock on effect of causing more coalitions and diversity of opinion whilst still avoiding the damaging party infighting that has plagued both the Conservative and Labour party in recent years.



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