If you voted for UKIP, I feel sorry for you. Politically, I’m so far way from you on the spectrum you wouldn’t be able to see me with a telescope, but you deserve better representation.
If you didn’t vote for UKIP, check out how powerful your vote was with this tool. Go on, I’ll wait.
There is something fundamentally wrong with an electoral system that allows one vote to be worth 169 times more than someone else’s. Yet, if you voted for the Democratic Unionist Party, and your neighbour voted UKIP, your vote was that much stronger.
Over the coming weeks and months, we will no doubt see a whole host of ‘Who would have won under PR?’ type articles and blog posts. I’m not about to do that, because the fact of the matter is that people would not have voted the same way. What I’m hoping to do is illustrate the inequalities and unfairnesses in what we call the First Past The Post system in use in the UK.
Who elects the government in the UK?
The UK is a representative democracy. That means that people influence the way the country is run indirectly. This is a compromise, but generally speaking a fair one. If every single person had to vote on every single issue, then nothing would ever get done. So we elect people to vote on our behalf, and a single person will represent a large number of other people, and will vote on their behalf in parliament. There’s nothing particularly bad about this. It makes sense and means that the country can be run effectively.
Each of these representatives can choose to give their allegiance to a political party, which is essentially a group of like-minded people who feel more or less the same way about things. As part of being a party member, representatives will sometimes be asked to vote in a different way to how they normally feel, in exchange for others doing the same on their behalf. For example, let’s imagine the following two proposals we have to vote on:
- To remove January from the calendar, because it’s the most depressing month
- To force the BBC to run a Breaking Bad marathon weekend three times a year
I love Breaking Bad, and I think that the marathon idea is great, but I know that not everyone loves it as much as I do. On the other hand, my birthday is in January, so I don’t find it very depressing at all, and would probably normally vote to keep it. My friend John thinks Breaking Bad is kind of all right and would probably normally prefer people to buy box sets, but he hates January. He thinks the idea of removing January from the calendar is great. John and I agree that we will both vote yes on both proposals. That way, we both get what we want in exchange for helping someone else get what they want.
A political party is this, on a larger scale. When a political party gets more than half of the representatives in parliament, they can form a government. In some cases, if a party thinks they are strong enough, they can form a government with fewer than half of the representatives in parliament, in what’s called a minority government. This is uncommon, but happens. The reason this is uncommon is because the other parties will often group together to form a majority, making bigger compromises than they normally would in order to be able to form a majority government. This is known as a coalition.
All of this seems pretty fair. So what’s good about the way the UK runs its elections?
Benefits of First Past The Post
As part of a fair commentary on the system, it is only reasonable to present its benefits. I mean, why would anyone have chosen the First Past The Post system in the first place? It’s in use in most places throughout the former British Empire, and it does have a number of attractive features, a few of which are documented below.
First, because of the way First Past The Post works, majority governments are much more likely. This is potentially a good thing, because coalition governments are often slower to make decisions and achieve their goals. It is also likely to produce a strong opposition, who act as a balancing force in parliament.
FPTP is also very easy to understand, explain, and count. A child can understand the system, and results can be delivered very quickly. Voters are unlikely to be confused.
Finally, under First Past The Post, extreme parties are much less likely to be able to build momentum.
So given all of these positives, what’s the problem?
The first problem is that the representatives are chosen based on geographical regions. Each representative (seat) is chosen to represent a group of people from a particular area of the country. This all but guarantees some people will not be represented. For example, Richmond in North Yorkshire was the safest Conservative seat at the 2010 election in terms of votes, and has never elected a representative who is not Conservative in over 100 years. At this election, the Tories lost 10% of the vote there to UKIP, but held the seat with over 50% of the vote. There are clearly a lot of centre-right voters in Richmond. However, if I am a centre-left voter, who wants someone with similar views to me to be my voice in parliament, and I live in Richmond, I’m stuck. I can vote Labour in every election for my entire life, and my voice will never have been heard in parliament.
Approaching this from the other side, votes from Tory supporters above the minimum level needed to elect the representative also don’t matter.
The way that the local representatives are chosen is a unfair too. In order to win, you only have to have one more vote than the person who came second. While this seems fair initially, when you dive in deeper, it becomes clear that this is not the case. For example, lets imagine we have 13 representatives. Candidate 1 was born in January, and to celebrate, wants to give everybody the whole month of January as paid holiday. Candidate 2 was born in February, and wants to do the same thing, except with their birth month. So on through until December. Candidate 13, however is a nasty person, and wants to increase the working week to an 80 hour minimum.
It’s a constituency of 14 people, so when the election results come in, it’s very quick to count. Each of the first twelve candidates get 1 vote each. Candidate 13, however, got two votes (probably the two factory owners in town, but it was a secret ballot, so we’ll never know for sure). Candidate 13 beat all the other 12 candidates, and so is declared the winner.
But wait, only 2 people voted to have the working week increased to 80 hours, the other 12 all voted to get a month off work! According to the way elections are run in the UK, tough.
The Inevitable Two Party State
As First Past The Post encourages majority governments and discourages extremist parties, so too does it simplify all elections into a left vs right debate. Voters have no way to control the drift of the country overall, and smaller parties get wiped out.
Lowest Common Denominator
First Past The Post is strongly biased towards the lowest common denominator. Almost no-one gets what they want, they get the most acceptable compromise (also known as the most broadly acceptable candidate). This is biased in favour of white men.
So how can we improve the current system? Isn’t this something that we could have fixed five years ago?
Electoral Reform Referendum
Five years ago, we were offered a referendum on electoral reform, and it was rejected. Many Conservatives and Labour supporters will highlight this as the electoral reform question rears its head, but AV only went a tiny way towards fixing the problems. While in the case of AV, everyone would have had a week off work (per the above example), many people are still not represented in parliament, and compromise candidates who have no particularly strong policies or ideas are generally more successful than they deserve to be.
Single Transferable Vote
Many people who voted no in the AV election would have voted yes for a fully proportional system like the Single Transferable Vote. Under the STV system, the number of representatives would increase, but almost no votes would be wasted. STV is exactly the same as AV, except you have more than one winning candidate per constituency.
The way it works is simple: you rank candidates you want to win. You can also choose not to rank candidates if you don’t want them to win. If your first choice candidate gets enough votes to win, or is the candidate with the least votes while there are still available seats to fill, then your vote is reallocated to your second choice candidate. While this does still result in a few wasted votes (if you don’t vote for any of the winning candidates), it is roughly proportional, and keeps most of the key benefits of FPTP. For example, while majority governments are less likely, it encourages coalitions between like-minded parties on a policy by policy basis. This is more likely to reflect what the population generally think – for example, if there were a vote on staying in Europe (not a referendum, just a vote in Commons), Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems would all be broadly for staying in Europe, and would likely agree to work together to stop UKIP from pushing their agenda through.
The real question that no-one is talking about though is why we are not moving with the times. In today’s world, I can take a quiz that tells me which Disney Princess I am, but I can’t easily express my opinion on a particular party policy easily. Given the abilities of technology nowadays, it would be very simple to establish a platform that would allow voters to express their opinion on a particular issue. Limits could be set (for example, if a million netizens express their disagreement with a bill recently passed in Commons, it needs to be re-debated, if five million express disagreement, there needs to be a referendum), and parties could use the platform to understand how their voters feel about certain issues.
There are a small number of difficulties to overcome – for example, how can we ensure that each person gets only one vote (maybe some form of two-factor authentication – a secret code sent via post to the voter’s registered address could work), and how to decide which of parliament’s hundreds of bills are opened up to netizen participation (maybe bills where the number of voting MPs was higher as a percentage of the house than the most recent election’s voter turnout – indicating a heavily whipped vote, or those on which the winning margin was small – indicating a controversial topic), but overall, it seems sensible to bring society into the information age, and allow voters to have a real say on issues that affect them.
Whatever you think is the best way to reform the electoral system, none of the major parties are likely to care. FPTP benefits them, and so they are resistant to change. If you think the scandal of wasted votes and huge disparity between the power of individuals’ votes is a shameful reflection on our society, visit the Electoral Reform Society’s homepage, and learn more about alternatives and what you can do.