It's Time For Electoral Reform

 Written By: Toby Gould
This article was also published on the Huffington Post, here.


The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which the UK has used for centuries, is broken.  Perhaps years ago, when the demographics of constituencies varied little, it was sufficient in representing the people.  Now, though, constituencies can be so mixed in terms of age, employment etc. (and so political opinions) that to have a system where a candidate can get a low percentage of the vote, which only has to be higher than any other single candidate, and still become an MP is ridiculous.  Earlier this month, the Independent reported that MPs could be returned to parliament in this year’s general election despite having the backing of just 16% of voters.  This is a result of the move away from the two party system as Ukip, the Greens and SNP gain traditional Tory or Labour ground.  It is a clear indication of how the FPTP system is flawed when there are more than two parties winning a substantial number of votes.  If an MP can be an areas ‘representative’ with such a low backing, something has gone wrong with our electoral system.

So, if it’s broken – what is the solution?  Proportional representation (PR), very simply, means that if a political party receives 25% of the vote, they will have 25% of the seats in parliament.  In this system, voters can be much better represented.  However, this basic form of PR doesn’t consider regional or district representation – something which many see as fundamental to our democracy.  The Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP), therefore, would work better in the UK.  In this system, voters have two votes: one for a political party and one for a parliamentary candidate (their constituency representative).  MPs run in constituencies like before, but there are also a proportional number of seats given to the parties based on their percentage of the vote.
This is certainly not the first time the introduction of PR has been suggested in the UK.  The late 1990s saw a surge in growth of support for the system’s implementation in Britain with the Liberal Democrats leading the way.  As a smaller party, they lose out time and time again in elections where their failure to win constituency majorities despite gaining a decent proportion of overall votes leads to them being under-represented in parliament.  In fact, the 1997 election saw the Lib Dems gain 16.8% of the total vote, but win under 10% of the seats. 
In 2011, we did have a referendum to decide whether or not to move to an alternative voting system (a result of a bill introduced by the Lib Dems).  Just 42.2% turned out to vote and those who did voted 68% against and 32% in favour.  However, there was not enough discussion and debate over what system would replace the current one – it was the Alternative Vote (where voters rank the candidates in order of preference) method that the public rejected, not electoral reform in general.  It is likely that the issue will be raised again after the 2015 election, as Ukip and the Green Party (who are on course to get 14% and 8% in the general election, based on the latest polls) may not be able to win a percentage of constituencies which represents this support.
Not only does would MMP put an end to the failure of our current system to represent the whole of the electorate, but it also allows for a greater choice.  It means that voters can have more of an influence and will move the UK away from the two-party system which has dominated our democracy since its founding.  This means that the electorate can vote for real change with more effective choice, as the Electoral Reform Society says: “Politics should offer people real alternatives”.  It would be fairer on smaller parties and independent candidates as well.  There are a few downsides, for example PR, would be much less likely to produce a majority government.  Even though this may have negative effects, for example it could make the government inefficient by producing ‘weak’ coalitions, it can also allow for greater consensus and cooperation between parties in government.  True democracy which can arise from a well-designed PR system is be better than the FPTP which we currently have in place.
But how do we go about implementing a democratic system which allows people to be truly represented in parliament?  Perhaps it could be part of a bigger reform in terms of how this country is governed.  Labour, for example, have said they’ll replace the House of Lords with a US-style elected senate if they win the next election.  What we need is a large-scale, independent assessment into whether or not the current system works as a truly representative democracy and then for prescriptions to be put forward and debated over how it can be fixed.
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