What is the single most important change that could be made to improve British politics?

Published: May 2010

The general election is upon us where voters will place a single X against the candidate they want to represent them for next 5 years. With the existing first-past-the-post system only the candidate with the most votes in each of the 646 constituency seats will be elected, even though the majority of those who become MPs not receiving at least 50 % of the vote from their constituents. As demonstrated by the 2005 general elections whereby only 34 % of MPs received 50 % of the votes, and Labour government elected with 35 % of votes cast (Kelly, 2010a, p.99). This means that the legitimacy of the current electoral system and the British democracy must be in questioned.

Any voting system that a nation adopts must deliver real choice, fairness, accountability, and above all democracy.  While there is no single system that can entirely improve British politics, reforming or changing the current electoral system could improve British politics. This essay is therefore, going to examine reasons why FPTP system should be changed and how this change could improve British politics. This essay does this by investigating the disadvantages and advantages of the system, and look at other options and their potential  role in improving British politics.

The electoral reform issue is not new; it has been ongoing for decades. Every enquiry held since 1910 has recommended some kind of change. For example, the Royal Commission in 1910, the speaker’s conference of 1971 and the Jenkins commission in 1998 recommended the Alternative Vote system (Butler, 2004) furthermore; the commission’s report further recommended that this system should be applied throughout United Kingdom (Jenkin, 1998, p.20).

The First-past-the-post voting system is an extremely unfair and undemocratic electoral system that ensures that only the winner takes all. It produces disproportionate result between votes cast and seats won for parties. Under the FPTP system, voters vote for a candidate they want like to be their local MP, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This means if a candidate gets 30 % of the votes cast and the second candidate gets 29 % of the votes cast, then the candidate who receives a plurality of votes, in this case 30 % becomes the MP. And the candidate in second gets nothing, either for himself or for his party. An example of this is the result of Brecon and Radnor constituency in 1992 elections which Conservatives won with 36.1% of the vote despite the fact that 63.9% of the constituents vote against them. “Turnout had been a meagre 61% partly caused it was argued by FPTP’s tendency to produce ‘safe’ seats where voting seemed pointless” (Kelly, 2010b, p.99). The outcome demonstrated that the winning candidate was rejected by the majority of the voters  (Pilkington, 1998, p.163). Thus, no government since 1935 has enjoyed the support of a majority of the electorates, according to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). One way of solving this problem would be to introduce a system that allocates seats to parties in proportion to their share of votes nationwide, proportional representation, in which each party receives a share of the seats consistent with its share of votes would better reflect voter’s expectations, and therefore there would be no violation of the principal of ‘one person one vote’. Single transferable vote (STV) could achieve this, it uses multi-member constituencies, in which electorates are ask to rank candidates according to their preferences  (Johnston & Pattie, 1997, p.384)

Another key disadvantage of FPTP is that, the number of seats a party wins depends not only upon the number of votes it gets but upon the geographical allocation of its vote. Parties whose support is strong in one particular area, will gain more seats for a given vote, than parties whose support scattered across the country. In this scenario proportional representation removes the aspect of geographical unfairness (Bogdano, 2010). Moreover, the current system appears to be biased towards the Labour Party because the Labour party, which formed the government since 1997, actually have won fewer total votes compared to their nearest rival the Conservatives. As Ian Budget (2007) identified “Labour’s constituencies are smaller compared to those of Conservatives, therefore Labour, needs fewer votes to win a seat” (Budge et al., 2007, p.335). Therefore, in order to improve British electoral systems and to remove the unfairness and the inconsistency associated with it, the current system must be replaced with one that that forces Parties and candidates to campaign for every vote and that eliminates safe seats. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is just that system. According to the Electoral reform society, “it breaks down party domination lets voters choose between parties and candidates and get the kind of representation they want” (Electoral reform society, 2010).

Furthermore, FPTP has discriminated against the Liberal Democrats and other small parties at national elections. For example, in 2005 general elections Liberal Democrats got 22% of the vote but only 9% of the seats. UK independent and the Green parties received 600,000 and 250,000 votes respectively and won no seats (Leach et al., 2006, pp.68-69). An argument suggested against FPTP is that it might discourage people from voting in an election for a minority party as they recognize that their vote will be wasted. This discriminates against minority parties who will lose out as a result. Only the Tories and Labour have any real expectation of forming a government. Therefore as Colin Pilkington (1998) identified the FPTP is so imperfect that it “only works within a two party system” (Pilkington 1998, p.163). On the other hand, proponents of this system argue that although the system creates exaggerated majorities and can be very hard on small parties, it produces clear cut results and a strong government. But, this strong government dominated by one party can lead to  a “divided parliament and a confrontational style of politics” (Pilkington, 1998, p.162) as well as a sudden change of policies as soon as another party takes over the government. For example, a tax increased implemented by a previous government might be reversed by the party that forms the next government. What is more, the system does results in “confrontational politics, the opposing parties tend to adopt extreme positions mainly because there is no need for consensus view required in the formation of coalition government” (Pilkington, 1998, p.164). Thus power should not be concentrated under the winner takes all system. Instead, power should be shared between parties, giving legitimacy to the government. PR system offers this because it is tried and tested in many countries and proved to be working well a good example is Germany. (Bawn, 1999).

The most fundamental weakness of FPTP is that a huge number of votes may play no part in determining the result of the elections. Because under this system most votes are in effect wasted. All votes for losing candidates and all excess votes for winning candidates may be considered wasted as they do not contribute to the election of legislative body. Furthermore, because most of the constituencies are considered to be safe seats, there is hardly any chance of change. Thus, marginal seats and a small group of swing voters decide who forms the next government (Leach et al., 2006, p.71).Therefore; an alternative electoral system must be introduced. A system that ensures that voter’s wishes are respected and almost all votes are effective in influencing the result and the number of wasted votes is minimised. “There is a great deal of research suggesting the PR system meets these conditions” (Budge et al., 2007, p.334). It is   now illogical for British Government to carry on using FPTP system, given that Scottish Parliament, European elections, and Welsh and Greater London Assemblies used alternative system.

In conclusion, FPTP can produce severely biased and unfair results between the two major parties, as well as discriminating systematically against smaller parties whose support is evenly spread across the country. Its massive weakness severely outweighs its advantage. Thus, the problem of unfairness can only be solved through electoral reform, which means getting rid of the current system for PR system. Power should not be concentrated under the winner takes all system instead, power should be extended amongst all parties, thus giving fair chance to small parties. PR system offers this. Under current system most of the MPs are elected without an overall majority of the votes cast. The majority of the electorates therefore, do not vote for those MPs they are voted for by minority voters or tactical voters in swing constituencies. Those wanting clear cut results and strong government will support a majority system. And those concerned with fairness and justness will favour a proportional system. No electoral systems are perfect but, British voters deserve a system that is democratic, proportionate, and one that does not violate   the principal of ‘one person one vote’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Bawn, K., 1999. Voter Responses to Electoral Complexity. British Journal of Political Science, 29(3), p.489.

Bogdano, V., 2010. electoral-reform.org.uk. [Online] Available at: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/article.php?id=5 [Accessed 27 March 2010].

Budge, I., Mckay, D., Bartle, J. & Newton, K., 2007. The New British Politics. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson Educations Ltd.

Butler, D., 2004. Electoral Reform. Parliamentary Affairs, 57(4), p.736.

Jenkin, R., 1998. Voting system: the Jenkin report. Research. London: House of Common House of Common.

Johnston, R.J. & Pattie, C.J., 1997. Electoral Reform. The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd, p.384.

Kelly, R., 2010a. The Worst of All Worlds? Electoral Reform and Britain’s 2009 European Elections. The Political Quarterly, 81(1), p.99.

Leach, R., Coxall, B. & Robins, L., 2006. British Politics. Basingsoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pilkington, C., 1998. Issues in British Politics. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

society, e.r., 2010. electoral reform society. [Online] Available at: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/article.php?id=160 [Accessed 29 March 2010].

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