In the UK we use a variety of different electoral systems for the various different elections run. For the UK general election, deciding Members of Parliament, we use ‘First Past the Post’ or Single Member Plurality system; for electing Members of the European Parliament, a Closed List system is used. These various systems have both advantages and disadvantages, but to what extent do they fulfill their purpose? Are they truly Democratic?
To examine the quality of Elections in the UK, we must first decide the criteria by which we are to measure the systems. In December 1997, an Independent Commission on the Voting System was set up to examine elections in the UK, after the Labour manifesto promised electoral reform. The commission’s result was the Jenkins’ Report, after Lord Jenkins. This outlined the criteria for a democratic electoral system as: Variety of Voter Choice, Strong Resulting Government, Proportionality between Votes and Results, and a Direct Link between MPs and their Constituency. The report revealed how poor the UK’s voting system is. First Past the Post may have a constituency link and deliver strong government, but fails to deliver proportionality – the UK hasn’t had a majority Government for 60 years – and for voters there is a limited choice for realistic candidates. But for the UK’s General Election, what alternatives are there?
There are three main types of Electoral system – Plurality, Majoritarian, and Proportional – with the addition of Hybrid systems which may incorporate elements of many systems simultaneously. A Majoritarian system, such as AV and SV, may provide the UK with a strong Government but still doesn’t provide the same proportionality as other systems like the Open List or Closed List, used in MEP elections and the General Election of Finland. But as we approach better systems of voting, satisfying more of the criteria, an entirely new series of issues arises – price, complexity, and length of time. For systems like STV where a complicated formula is used to calculate a voting threshold – the Droop Formula – it is difficult to imagine the average voter understanding the system. The major advantage of FPTP is its simplicity, and for many people, this ease of voting outweighs the importance of proportionality and voter choice.
Many systems suggest redividing the constituencies so that large constituencies contain several MP seats. This list system may provide better proportionality and allow smaller parties to gain seats for the first time, but arguably fails to give a direct close link between each MP and their small constituency. But equally, voters are more likely to have a link with the MP they voted for or best represents them, even if they work or live further away than before. In the current electoral system, only a small number of constituencies – around 20 – can form ‘swing states’ that can produce different party MPs. The majority of constituencies have ‘MPs for life’ and don’t change political party orientation.
In 2011, a referendum was held into the possibility of changing electoral system from FPTP to AV – alternative vote. A severe issue with the referendum, and also with the system itself, was that many voters simply didn’t understand AV, leaving a voter turnout of just 42%. A ‘NO’ was reached, with 67.9% of the voters voting against changing electoral system. AV would have removed the problem of wasted votes from FPTP, as one can vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order. But this is not a proportional representation system. It still has the issue that minority parties won’t form Government.
But there are more elections in the UK than simply the General Election. SV is used for electing the London Mayor; and is designed for a race with two main candidates. SV gives a voter two votes, and reduces the problem of wasted votes, but again, isn’t a proportional system. This is clearly not an appropriate system for choosing MPs. This system only works in London, as the two main candidates – Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone – received 84% of the first votes between them, an overwhelming majority. In the General Election we try to avoid a two-party system, and are slowly approaching a multi-party race between the growing number of minor parties.
In conclusion, I would say that elections in the UK need reforming. We use a variety of different systems to fit a variety of different political situations, but there are most definitely areas for improvement, particularly with the UK General Election. The simplicity and tradition of FPTP doesn’t justify its major flaws – disproportionality and wasted votes – and I think a push towards the List Systems of voting, despite producing coalition Governments, would give voters a better choice. There would be no reason to have to vote tactically. But even today we could be moving closer to direct democracy, with the increased use of referenda, and the possibility of internet-based voting, making such referenda cheaper and easier to run. The Jenkins criteria suggests an optimal system – Alternative Vote Plus. This apparently fulfills all the purposes of voting, but it has never been used anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that Britain’s Voting System will change, but I personally wish it to. The UK’s elections don’t fulfill its criteria fully, but there is definitely opportunity to do so.